Few thought Sofia Kenin could reach the French Open final when, three weeks ago, she lost 6-0, 6-0 in her lone clay-court tune-up match.
Few thought Iga Swiatek could reach the French Open final as recently as last week. Ranked 54th, the 19-year-old from Poland was promising, but had yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Come Saturday in Paris, Kenin and Swiatek play for the title to write the final name in one of the most bizarre brackets — and tournament settings — in major tennis history.
Kenin, the fourth-seeded American, swept seventh-seeded Czech Petra Kvitova 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals on Thursday. Kenin, the Australian Open champion in February, and Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon winner, were the only women with Grand Slam final experience to make it past the fourth round.
“I used to hate clay,” the 21-year-old Kenin said. “[In juniors] I felt like I wasn’t strong. I’m hitting a ball. It’s not going anywhere.
“I had success last year [beating Serena Williams in the third round], and after that I feel like things clicked.”
Earlier Thursday, Swiatek became the second-lowest-ranked female French Open finalist, routing 131st-ranked Argentine Nadia Podoroska 6-2, 6-1.
Swiatek dropped just 23 games among her first six matches, the fewest of any woman who didn’t drop a set en route to the final since Mary Pierce in 1994 (10 games).
“On one hand, I know that I can play great tennis,” said Swiatek, the second Polish woman to make a Roland Garros final after Jadwiga Jedrzejowska in 1939. “On the other hand, it’s kind of surprising for me. I never would have thought that I’m going to be in the final. It’s crazy.”
Kenin and Swiatek will meet for the first time on the WTA Tour level in the youngest Grand Slam final by combined age since the 2008 Australian Open (Maria Sharapova defeating Ana Ivanovic).
But they’ve been on opposite sides of the net before — a barely 15-year-old Swiatek beat Kenin 6-4, 7-5 in the 2016 French Open junior tournament.
“I was not as comfortable on clay as I am now, as I started to feel last year,” Kenin said. “Of course, we’re both different players now.”
Kenin, born in Moscow and raised in Florida, joined Venus and Serena Williams as U.S. women to make multiple Grand Slam finals in one year since 2006. She is shining brightest among a new group of Americans bursting through, including Amanda Anisimova, Coco Gauff and Jennifer Brady.
“It’s not easy to get respect,” said Kenin, who described herself in one word as “feisty” and is so devoted that she cries before matches and after defeats. “It’s really easy to lose it. Like I said, people respect me. I’m going to keep it that way.”
Swiatek made opponents and viewers alike respect her these last two weeks. She became the betting favorite to take the title after thrashing top seed and 2018 champion Simona Halep of Romania 6-1, 6-2 in the fourth round on Sunday. Halep beat Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 at the 2019 French Open.
“I can handle the pressure,” Swiatek said Sunday. “I grown up to play a match like that and to win it.”
Kenin and Swiatek took different paths to the final, but each came through in unprecedented circumstances. It’s the first French Open to be played in October.
The first with night matches, thanks to a new roof over Court Philippe Chatrier and lights on multiple courts, keeping it on schedule amid frequent rain and temperatures mostly in the 50s.
“I know what the emotions are getting into your first Grand Slam final,” said Kenin, who rallied past veteran Spaniard Garbine Muguruza for the Australian Open title. “I’m hoping she’s going to be a little bit nervous.”
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