PARIS (AP) — A little more than four years ago, in the first round of a tiny clay-court tournament in the Czech Republic, 95th-ranked Iga Swiatek lost in three sets to 106th-ranked Karolina Muchova.
That was the only time they’ve ever played each other, although they are frequent practice partners.
On Saturday, the same two players will step into Court Philippe Chatrier for a second matchup — on a far grander stage and with far larger stakes: the French Open championship. Swiatek is now ranked No. 1, where she’s been for more than a year, and is bidding for her third title at Roland Garros and fourth at a major tournament.
Muchova’s career has been sidetracked by various injuries, so she is ranked just 43rd and is unseeded, but she has been at her best over the past two weeks, particularly when coming back after facing a match point to eliminate No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals on Thursday.
And Muchova did it with the same mix of old-school and new-school tennis that Swiatek remembers seeing up close during that initial encounter in Prague in April 2019.
“I really like her game, honestly. I really respect her, and she’s, I feel like, a player who can do anything. She has great touch. She can also speed up the game,” Swiatek said. “She plays with that kind of, I don’t know, freedom in her movements. And she has a great technique. So I watched her matches and I feel like I know her game pretty well.”
Muchova does a bit of everything.
She’s comfortable at the net. She’ll vary her speeds and angles from the baseline. She knows when to hang back and when to attack. She even hit more aces in the semifinals than her big-hitting foe, Sabalenka.
Muchova was asked whether she ever thought about altering her approach, playing more like other players.
“No, I never had that moment. I think I have it like that in everything in life: I don’t really want to be like anyone else,” the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic said. “It’s the type of game I enjoy, and I believe in.”
It’s worked well enough to carry her to a 5-0 record against women ranked in the Top 3.
She was unaware of that statistic until a reporter mentioned it and asked whether that might make her the favorite against Swiatek, a notion Muchova brushed aside.
“It just shows me that I can play against them,” she said. “I can compete.”
There’s no doubt about that.
Swiatek, though, presents her own challenges.
She, like Muchova, can play with nuance. She, like Muchova, knows how to construct a point, how to play defense when necessary, how to attack when necessary. Her heavy-topspin forehand is as dangerous on clay as any shot from anyone else in women’s tennis at the moment.
That is why Swiatek hasn’t lost a set so far in the tournament. And why she is eyeing a second consecutive title and third in four years in Paris.
Muchova only has won one WTA trophy. Swiatek had zero from any tournaments when she went into her first major final at the 2020 French Open at age 19.
So how has Swiatek, still just a little more than a week removed from her 22nd birthday, changed since then?
“For sure, I feel like I’m a better player. Improvement, I feel like, is everywhere, so I can’t really say (one area). Everywhere — like, tennis-wise, mentally, tactically, physically, just having the experience, everything,” she said. “So, yeah, my whole life, basically.”
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