Sep 10, 2022

2022 US Open Women's Finals

Swiatek vs Jabeur :


Thunder crashes once more. Ons Jabeur awakens to several snails investigating her vibes. “Where am I?” she asks, not particularly to the snails. Unfortunately, there is no one else around.

“You’re in the jungle,” say the snails.
“Uh, thanks” says Ons, “Can you be more specific?”
“No, we’re snails” say the snails, before wandering off.

I think we can all see what the lesson is from this story. Ons Jabeur is going to win the US Open, and snails do not deal in specifics.

It’s pretty rare that we get the best player on tour playing the second best player on tour in the finals. This is almost certainly it. Ons Jabeur is coming off a finals appearance at Wimbledon. Iga Swiatek won Roland Garros. In between those huge results these two have also been winning a ton of matches with Ons carrying 38 wins in and Iga with 50. The semifinals were two wildly different matches, but both Jabeur and Swiatek were matched up against one of the bigger hitters on tour in great form. Garcia came off a tremendous win against Gauff where she looked scary good. She was down in the H2H against Ons, but her new form made it seem like she was an entirely new matchup. Not so, and early in the match it became clear that Jabeur knows how to beat Garcia. Jabeur hit nonstop slices at the start of this match, and it froze Garcia’s backhand. She’d done so well reflecting pace with interest all tournament, but couldn’t get it done here. She struggle with her length, and it brought back the old Caroline Garcia who can’t keep the ball on the court. Her close return position was unfortunately ineffective, as Jabeur landed a ton of first serves and Garcia was handcuffed by them. Jabeur kept the ball low during rallies, and the 6-1 scoreline of the first left Garcia in a spot where she couldn’t really risk opening up and giving up an easy break. She played careful and waited for her spots, but Jabeur never really gave her anything.

“Hi I’d like to order a large Sabalenka?”

“Would you like double faults with that?”

“Not this time, thanks”

Somehow, Aryna Sabalenka’s serve practice has paid off. She spent a ton of time at the last few events just practicing serves, and at this even she almost knocked off the #1 seed as a result. Her power from the baseline made Swiatek’s forehand look very shaky at times, and she was looking in control at the end of the first set. The trouble came in the second, as Swiatek steadied herself and Sabalenka started to make mistakes. It was the classic Iga’s bakery situation, but the break in between sets after a multiple break loss is a classic spot to regroup in the WTA. Sabalenka came out renewed, and broke in the opening game. She’d give that one back, but would add another break for 3-2. This time she held for 4-2, and Swiatek’s frantic play at this point started to look like it would be her undoing. Something clicked though, and Swiatek won the last 4 games in what felt like 15 minutes. It was the classic Swiatek play that carried her through in the end. Backhand down the line, forehands hit with full commitment and the Rafa windmill technique, and scrambling defense that seems so very full of scramble but somehow improves her contact point.

In this final, there’s one external factor I think is likely to play a part, and that’s Jabeur’s team. They aren’t wildly animated or over the top, but there is a consistent energy and chatter coming out of their camp that is really solid to play behind. Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali keeps the conversation going while she’s on their end with simple but insightful advice, and her husband, sports psychologist et al are a constant presence. It’s hard to quantify it, but their team seems more focused on getting this title than anyone else’s. They’ve clearly been putting in a ton of work, Jabeur is at the top of her game, and she seems more focused than ever. After the Wimbledon loss, it’s very likely that she’s been afforded the “unfinished business” tarot card of motivation here. Overall it reminds me of the setup and professionalism that you see in the professional squash ranks. Business-like but with a quiet tenacity.

On the court factors are tricky here. Swiatek won their last meeting in Rome fairly easily (2,3) but on clay Iga is a much different player. Her forehand has gotten a bit flaky here this week, and her backhand has lost its timing as well for short periods. The main concern is how often she’s getting broken, and she’s not serving many unreturneds. I won’t use unreturned serve stats from the Garcia match because Caroline was standing way inside the baseline, but I give a slight edge in serving here to Jabeur. Swiatek’s forehand is obviously a huge weapon with time, but Jabeur has been hitting lasers on her forehand wing and has been almost half-volleying the ball when it comes at her with pace. The equation is a little trickier because of all the spin on Iga’s shot, but I think Jabeur is up to the task and gets a good boost from these courts.

The other thing I’ve really enjoyed this week has been how stable and measured Jabeur’s backhand is. I don’t love the idea of her going slice-heavy against Swiatek since she has such a similar motion for going both directions off her backhand, but Swiatek has been somewhat error prone and has looked visibly rattled when she’s been down in the scoreline. 2/3 feels like a sprint most of the time, but Swiatek has proven she’s very capable of swinging for the fences until she finds her range. If Jabeur wins the first, it’ll be a huge key for her to take care of her serve early in the second. This is common sense, but tennis is often a very common sense sport. Hold serve, win the title. Lose concentration, wind up in the “Swiatek runs away with it” story. It doesn’t make it true, but you, the crowd, and Swiatek start to believe that the thing that has happened so often is happening again. Any sort of attention to this sort of thinking can lose you a game, and regret about that game can poison the next one. This is where I think Jabeur’s camp gives her an edge. They can keep her focused, and she has the belief and the game to get this done. Jabeur in 2.