Iga Swiatek prides herself on being studious. As recently as a couple of years ago, she considered attending college. But on Sunday, in the third set of the San Diego Open final versus qualifier Donna Vekic, Swiatek was not student, nor simply teacher; she was decorated faculty, the final set of her 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 win a masterclass. It was a moment you rarely see in pro tennis, much less during the finals of a WTA 500 event against an in-form opponent who’d once been ranked inside the Top 20.
“I just hit an Iga wall,” said Vekic. “Everything I threw at her, she came back with even better shots.”
In her semifinal against Jessica Pegula, Swiatek lost the first set and then won 12 of 14 points to start the second, a swift turnaround that halted Pegula’s momentum. Today’s effort was even better. Having lost the second set, Swiatek commenced the third with exceptional urgency.
“I felt like I needed to change something after the second set,” said Swiatek.
From footwork to movement to sharp angles, oppressive topspin, deep drives and even an untouchable crosscourt forehand squash shot hit on the run, Swiatek dominated the decider, winning 24 of 29 points.
“I worked hard with my coach and also my psychologist to be able to keep focus in moments like that,” said Swiatek.
Serving at 0-5, 15-40, an overwhelmed Vekic double-faulted, an occurrence that in the face of Swiatek’s comprehensive arsenal could hardly be classified as an unforced error.
Only seven days ago, Swiatek had lost in the Ostrava final in the Czech Republic. Following the 6,000-mile plane ride, it was never clear all week if Swiatek had shaken off the jet lag. Three of her four wins went three sets. She also grappled with a head cold that had begun in Europe.
But in the end, Swiatek had won her eighth title of the year and upped her career WTA singles finals record to 11-2.
While these championship Sundays have become familiar territory for Swiatek, Vekic had last gone this far more than three years ago. In November 2019, she was ranked as high as 19th in the world. But after a knee operation in early 2021 and the inevitable struggles that accompany a comeback, Vekic arrived in San Diego ranked 77th, her 2022 a hardworking shuttle between WTA and ITF events.
This week marked a resurgence. Coming out of the qualifying, Vekic in the main draw knocked off four top-tier players: fifth-seeded Maria Sakkari, former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, third-seeded Aryna Sabalenka and 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins. Vekic’s semifinal win over Collins had been quite dramatic. Up 5-1 in the first set, Vekic barely hung on to win it, 6-4. She’d then lost the second by the same score. The third was marked by rain delays (rare for San Diego) and was at last postponed late Saturday evening, Vekic trailing 4-2. Upon resumption this Sunday afternoon, Vekic rallied to win it in a tiebreaker, 7-2.
If having to finish a semi and commence a final less than three hours later theoretically hindered Vekic, any such physical or mental fatigue had vanished by the time the second set got underway. Though Vekic lacks Swiatek’s ability to shape the ball with tremendous topspin, her hard, flat drives attained superior length, particularly when laced down the line. With Swiatek serving at 2-3, 15-40, Vekic drop-shotted and earned the break with a crosscourt forehand passing shot winner. Vekic also served well in the second set. She got in a snappy 70 percent of her first serves and won 22 of 30 service points. Said Vekic, “It’s by far the best week of my career.”
As a devoted reader of books and viewer of movies and TV shows, Swiatek enjoys a good story and values a fitting conclusion.
“At the end, I wanted to really be the one who was going to play the last ball in,” said Swiatek. “It happened a few times, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
As Vekic learned profoundly this afternoon, Swiatek figured a Cinderella story should only go so far.