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Ostapenko strike forces Swiatek ‘reset’, ensures new women’s No. 1 | Tennis News

Such was her stranglehold on the women’s tour that from the time she became the world No. 1 on April 4, 2022 until the start of the 2023 US Open, Iga Swiatek had lost to just 10 women across 26 tournaments and 100-plus matches.

Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia embraces Iga Swiatek of Poland following their Women's Singles Fourth Round match on Day Seven of the 2023 US Open (AFP)
Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia embraces Iga Swiatek of Poland following their Women’s Singles Fourth Round match on Day Seven of the 2023 US Open (AFP)

There is, however, a common link between the Pole’s last defeat before her 75-week No. 1 streak and the one that ended it: Jelena Ostapenko.

The 2017 French Open champion, with all her brute on-court power, stopped the 17-month strong Swiatek streamroller like only she can. The Latvian outmuscled the Pole 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 to not only send the defending champion packing from the US Open fourth round but also ensure the arrival of a new women’s world No. 1 in Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka after the season-ending Slam.

Ostapenko did on Sunday night what even Sabalenka has not managed to so far — defeat Swiatek four times over without being beaten. Ostapenko did on Sunday night what no other player has managed to this season so far — defeat Swiatek after losing the opening set.

Winning the opening set and dropping the ball was also how it unravelled for Swiatek when she last played Ostapenko in Dubai in February 2022. It is, like Swiatek admitted, a situation she isn’t used to. If she isn’t quite at her optimum level — which hasn’t happened a lot in the last couple of years — it is usually at the start of matches before she tends to “catch up or just problem-solve”.

At the Arthur Ashe Stadium under lights, Ostapenko gave her no time for that. An outspoken and mercurial personality off court, the 26-year-old can blow hot and cold on court. If her mesmerising 2017 French Open triumph was an indication of the former, her mediocre four-year spell from 2019 to 2022 where she did not go beyond the fourth round of a major was a validation of the latter.

The moment Swiatek turns up though, Ostapenko turns it on. On Sunday, the Latvian’s strength behind her groundstrokes continued to overpower Swiatek’s solidity. After the opening set, where Swiatek was a lot better behind her second serves and not too far behind in the winners count (8 to her opponent’s 12), Ostapenko broke away. Her ferocious forehands fired fast and deep, frequently making Swiatek feel rushed with her shots, inducing errors while cutting down winners. By the time she was 4-1 up in the second set, Ostapenko had notched up 10 winners to Swiatek’s one for the set. By the time she wrapped up the lop-sided third set and the match, Ostapenko finished with 31 winners (19 off her forehand wing) to Swiatek’s 18.

“I was hitting quite many winners, and she didn’t like the power I was giving her because she needed some time to play,” the Latvian, in her first major quarter-final since her 2018 Wimbledon semi-final show, said.

Swiatek often isn’t her own self when facing power-hitters, as her volume of defeats with some of them reflects: Ostapenko (4), Sabalenka (3), Elena Rybakina (3). She often also isn’t her own self when there are more things on the line. At this US Open she had to defend her title as well as the top spot, and the 22-year-old felt that.

“This last part, it was pretty exhausting (to defend the No. 1 ranking),” Swiatek said. “I still need to do all this stuff that my team and all these great players like Roger (Federer) or Novak (Djokovic) or Rafa (Nadal) are talking about: You just have to focus on the tournaments, not the rankings.”

Swiatek did precisely that at the beginning of her No. 1 joyride that arrived unexpectedly after the retirement of Ash Barty. She simply went about doing what she knew best: bringing quality to her tennis and quantity to her victories. It led to a 21st century record 37-match win streak; to her second and third French Open titles and first US Open crown; to a 75-week hold at the top only bettered by Steffi Graf (186) and Martina Hingis (80) as first-time world No. 1s.

Towards the second half of this season, though, came signs of it all taking a toll on the young Pole. She spoke multiple times about the pressure that being the defending champion — which she was in Paris and New York — brought along. She highlighted the “excessive online hate and criticism” she receives after dropping even a set. She admitted her fuel tank was empty ahead of the US Open.

“The hardest part is already done for me, but this season was really tough and intense. It’s not easy to cope with all of this stuff,” she said on Sunday. “I’m just happy that I will have time to reset a little bit.”

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