DEEPER DIVE: WTA INTERNAZIONALI BNL D'ITALIA


Photograph: Getty Images

As the WTA Tour moved to Rome for the last major tournament before the French Open the story had become who can challenge world number one Iga Swiatek.

A dominating 23 match winning streak had the entire women’s tour on notice. Frightening form, mental toughness and supreme confidence. Who on the women’s tour could challenge?

Could it be Paula Badosa? What about Aryna Sabalenka? Simona Halep perhaps? Victoria Azarenka was in the draw and she has pedigree. What about the young guns in Coco Gauff and Bianca Andreescu? Somebody needed to stand up and stand up quick.

Halep and Garbine Murguruza were two early casualties. Badosa stumbled in round three at the hands of clay court artist Daria Kasatkina, who was too good once again, winning 6-4, 6-4.

Maria Sakkari eliminated Gauff. The young American can’t seem to win the big matches against the tour's top ten right now. Ons Jabeur moved through, as did Andreescu while Azarenka gave her best against Swiatek but it was 6-4, 6-1 to the Polish champion. The Swiatek ground game was just too much.

As the quarter-finals started, it was the same result for Swiatek who matched up with former US Open champion Andreescu. Swiatek won 7-6(2), 6-0 and it was a carbon copy of the round before. It was rinse and repeat for Swiatek. Wear down the opponent in set one where they eventually break, causing set two to be one-way traffic. Swiatek looked unstoppable once again.

Sabalenka earned a semi-final spot with a great three-set win over American Amanda Anisimova. Sabalenka showed great resilience after dropping the first set.

Kasatkina continued her wonderful European summer when Swiss Jil Teichmann retired down a set and a break. Kasatkina was through to another semi-final and is as dangerous as ever on the slow clay.

The marquee quarter-final between Jabeur and Sakkari lasted two hours with Jabeur coming out on top 1-6, 7-5, 6-1. Nothing separated the two ladies with Jabeur winning 92 total points to 88 to for Sakkari. It is when you win those points that matter in world tennis and Jabeur has become a big point specialist on the world tour.

Come semi-final time the question was; who could stop Swiatek? Sabalenka has the firepower to beat anybody but could she be consistent enough to unsettle the world number one? She couldn’t once again and Swiatek's dominance continued 6-2 6-1. Scary scoreline from a player in peak form.

The Jabeur v Kasatkina semi-final was a much more even affair. Kasatkina is a top ten talent but had lost her way the last few seasons. She has shown this European summer what she is capable of and after she took the second set 6-1 to level the match at a set a piece, she looked the likely winner.

But once again it was Jabeur with the big point mastery in the deciding set, taking it 7-5. Both players won 95 total points from the match. There was no separation. The difference was the 15 break point chances the Tunisian created. It was too much for Kasatkina to keep at bay and eventually, she fell. Look for Kasatkina to make the second week in Paris.

The two hottest players in the world were into the final and the question was; could Jabeur find a way to blunt the Swiatek power game? Jabeur’s team are heavy on match preparation, patterns of play and finding openings through analytics.

But Swiatek has reached a place this season where it could be possible that none of that even matters. She is approaching rare air with her match streak and title run. Take nothing away from Jabeur she has arrived as a grand slam threat. But it was Swiatek that took the match out of her hands with a 6-2, 6-2 powerhouse display. The shotmaking, the returning, the defence and the serve +1 execution was on total display.

So as the French Open is on our doorstep, there looks only one winner. There will be a 128 draw in Paris but the female who sits atop that draw as the top seed looks unplayable. 28 straight wins and five consecutive titles says loud and clear to the rest of the field, I challenge anybody to come and beat me. The French Open will be hers and hers to lose. There will be pressure yes, but she looks in a happy place as an athlete that is rarely seen. Is there anybody that can take her down?