The champion is gone and, along with her, the last pillar of stability in the women’s French Open draw. Iga Swiatek was defeated 6-4, 6-4 after a supreme, gutsy performance from Maria Sakkari of Greece. Swiatek’s departure means this year’s Roland Garros will see four first-time grand slam semi-finalists all battling for a maiden major title, with more tense, thrilling uncertainty to come.
For four successful rounds, Swiatek had handled her title defence with class, overcoming numerous spirited opponents without conceding a set, only reinforcing her presence as the tournament favourite as other top players fell. But when the fall came for the Pole, it was a logical outcome.
Sakkari, the 17th seed, has been one of the most improved players on the women’s tour. Along with her young English coach, Tom Hill, she has transformed her serve from an average delivery into one of the best in the world. Her confidence has taken some time to grow to the point where felt she could compete for the biggest titles. As she has established herself inside the top 20, the remaining question was whether she really had the nerve to take the next step.
She has taken several this week. For fleeting moments early in the encounter, the weight of the occasion favoured the defending champion. But with the score at 4-4, Swiatek’s forehand collapsed after relentless pressure from Sakkari. The first set culminated in a tense, difficult final showdown on Sakkari’s serve. The Greek saved a break point with a brilliant 99mph second serve. After a long deuce game, Sakkari closed out the set with a backhand down-the-line winner.
The momentum continued to favour Sakkari in the second set, while Swiatek’s physical problems with her left thigh eventually led her to take a medical timeout at 6-4, 2-0. Sakkari missed an opportunity for a double break as she led 3-1 en 15-40 on Swiatek’s serve. She had to wait for many minutes during the medical timeout that could have destroyed her momentum. Sakkari then had to serve out the match against an opponent who was clearly ready to fight.
She handled it all with consummate professionalism. Sakkari breezed to a 40-0 lead at 6-4, 5-4 behind a drop-shot winner, an ace and a forehand winner, taking the racket from Swiatek’s hands. After being dragged from 40-0 aan 40-30, she slammed down a 99mph second serve, which did not come back. With it, she clinched the biggest win of her life.
“I just really enjoyed today,” said Sakkari. “Before coming into the match, I sat down by myself and spoke to myself. ek het gesê: ‘You know what? It’s a very important match. But just enjoy it.’ This is one of the best stadiums in the world so I had to.”
Sakkari, the highest ranked player left in the draw, will next face Barbora Krejcikova for a spot in the final after the Czech defeated Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3 in the earlier quarter-final. Krejcikova saved five set points in a first set that she never truly led in until she had won it, scuppering four of those set points with bold, point-ending groundstrokes.
Krejcikova’s story is unique, even in a sport that boasts such a vast variety of paths to the top. A former doubles No 1 and two-times slam champion, she has found singles success in the completely opposite order to most. She is also a former protege of the late Jana Novotna, die 1998 Wimbledon women’s singles champion, who is always on her mind. “I always think about her," sy het gese. “Every time I go on court, I step out of the court, I always think about her. I’m always wondering what she would tell me after such a run, all this winning matches and everything. I’m just really sad I cannot actually hear her and she cannot really say anything.”
Despite a frustration so great that she even eviscerated her racket in the second set as the match ran away from her, Gauff, 17, departed her first grand slam quarter-final on a positive note. “I’m obviously disappointed that I wasn’t able to close out the first set," sy het gese. “To be honest, it’s in the past, it already happened. After the match, Enzo, my hitting partner, told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that.”