By Nick Carter
I really enjoyed the WTA Miami final, but not for the reasons I was expecting. A lot of us were hoping for a big battle between two stars of the women’s game, the beginning of an iconic new rivalry. What we got instead was a demonstration of high-level tennis, but mostly from one very special player who has now cemented herself as the world number one: Iga Świątek.
The opening game suggested we were in for a battle. It lasted for 11 minutes as Świątek time and again prevented Naomi Osaka from serving it out, whilst trying to carve an early break lead. It didn’t quite materialise, but it set the tone for the set. Osaka’s first serve was a piercing weapon, delivering several aces early on. However, Świątek was getting lots of returns back into play, and she had the upper hand in the rallies. Osaka’s big strokes weren’t overwhelming Świątek, her ability to scramble the ball back making the Japanese star play one more ball. This played into Świątek’s hands, as Osaka was far more likely to break down and make an unforced error.
At the start of the match, Swiatek seemed to be targeting her opponent’s backhand and trade with her there. It didn’t matter so much then as Osaka was missing from both wings. Let’s not be harsh here, at this point Naomi wasn’t missing by much. The errors weren’t coming from poor execution, but having to deal with awkward ball placement or just the pressure of having to hit winners to beat Swiatek, who just was not missing. She seemed to have an answer for everything Osaka threw at her, finding a way to compete for every point.
The biggest issue for Świątek in the first set was her first serve, which landed less than half the time in the first several games. Somehow, she was still holding to 15 or 30 despite this. Some of this is due to her consistency, but it has to be said Osaka made a tactical error on the return as well. She was standing over halfway to the service line when receiving the second serve to take aggressive swings, but this meant she didn’t get the purchase on the shot she needed. It’s like Osaka massively underestimated the Świątek second serve, or realized the need for her to attack that shot a little too much and wound up pressing. Granted, the second serve is not the strongest part of Świątek’s game, but Osaka needed to give herself more time to really attack it. As it was, she was getting jammed trying to return and ended up taking time away from herself rather than Świątek.
Osaka’s first serve kept her out of trouble for a while, but when it went AWOL in the fifth game Świątek immediately grabbed the break. Osaka managed to hold serve the rest of the set despite a lot of pressure in subsequent games, but one break was all Świątek needed to take control. Monday’s new world number one was probing every return game, looking to draw an error or open up the court to hit a winner. Likewise, a lot of smart serving put her in the ascendancy to win points and maintain her lead. Crucially, Świątek wasn’t making many errors herself; she stayed very consistent.
Then, as we have come to expect from Świątek, she took her level up a notch to close the first set. Suddenly her first serve was landing in more regularly, which Osaka was struggling to get back. This was partly because it was only at this point, mid-way through the match, that Świątek began to really attack her rival’s forehand. Up until then, she’d been preferring the backhand, then as it steadily improved, switched to attacking both wings. However, Osaka’s forehand was sometimes misfiring from defensive positions and Świątek decided to capitalise and make her uncomfortable. It looked at first it might be a nervy hold, especially as Osaka tried to put the pressure on, but in the end the set was with Świątek, 6-4 after 53 minutes.
Osaka did not get much of a chance to reset ahead of the next phase of the match. Her unforced error count hadn’t settled, but more importantly she was under attack. Świątek was now making deep returns and targeting the forehand. She was doing what she always does, going up a level to make sure her opponent stayed down. This is the mark of how great a player Świątek already is. Suddenly, she was already a break up in the second set. Strong serving (two aces and one unreturned) in the following game meant she consolidated and now we wondered whether Osaka could mount a comeback. We’d seen her do it before in big finals, we knew it was possible.
However, if anyone has watched Świątek recently she doesn’t seem to be able to lose. If you look at her whole career, she doesn’t lose from winning positions, especially in finals. What followed was an awesome display of dominance from her. In the first set, when Świątek was making errors it was during points where she was going for big shots or trying to go toe-to-toe in rallies. Now, this was no longer an issue. Świątek was hitting big, attacking forehands and there was very little her opponent could do to counter this. She was now either forcing errors or hitting winners. Under pressure, Osaka double faulted to concede the double break.
Swiatek got a bit tight in the following game, getting taken to deuce for the first time in the match after some groundstroke errors. However, she took the pressure off with some strong serving and taking control of the next two points. The result was in little doubt as Świątek lead 4-0. The fifth game of the set actually had some really good rallies, but most ended with a Świątek winner. Another strongly contested exchange resulted in a forehand error from Osaka, having been continually forced to play one more shot. By this point, she looked perplexed as to how she could possibly beat her fellow finalist. She wasn’t giving up, she still attacked, but Świątek was able to out-hit her.
Swiatek then strongly closed out the match in the next game thanks to some great serving and brilliant attacking play resulting in her hitting a winner or drawing an error. After seeing an Osaka return sail long on match point, Iga celebrated like she couldn’t believe what had just happened. Her previous titles in Doha and Indian Wells had been marked with a cry and a fist pump, as she was clearly elated. Here, it was like she finally was able to relax and enjoy the moment as she dropped to her haunches with a beaming smile. Maybe she was under more pressure to perform than we thought, given all the hype about being the world number one in-waiting and the expectation of winning the Sunshine Double.
The atmosphere after the match was just really positive. Naomi got a wonderful reception as she stepped forward to receive the runner-up award. Her speech gave the impression of someone who was really happy to be there, to be back at the top level and being happy for her friend. The way she mentioned their rivalry being 1-1 suggests that whilst on the court they’ll take it seriously, off the court it’ll be the source of friendly banter. Then Iga’s speech was similarly positive, and her beaming smile was wonderful to see as she was clearly loving life. Iga Świątek is a worthy world number one and in this form I do not know who can challenge her if she’s having a good day. I’m getting 2000s Federer vibes from her, which of course begs the question if a ‘Nadal’ will arise and if so, who it will be. That’s for the future, for now let’s enjoy the fact we were treated to an unbelievably impressive performance from a great player who is still only 20 years old.