It is not a comparison Iga Swiatek would invite, but the last time she found the irresistible form that has characterised her performances since late September, when she was last defeated, she went on to win 37 matches in a row.
There is no need to reach for the record books just yet, but the manner of the world No 1’s 15th straight triumph, a 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Caroline Garcia that propelled Poland into the final of the United Cup, suggested she will take some stopping when the Australian Open gets underway in a week’s time. It was not so much Swiatek’s level over the final two sets that stood out, impressive though that undoubtedly was, but the mental steel she exhibited to turn around a contest that at one stage seemed to be slipping away.
After navigating a difficult hold at the start of the second set, frustration began to creep into the 22-year-old’s play. A missed pass drew an angry swish of the racket. Even a successful approach shot was greeted with a perceptible shrug of exasperation, Swiatek having directed her forehand straight back to Garcia with the court at her mercy. When she then nudged an inviting short ball wide, Tomasz Wiktorowski, her coach and the Polish team captain, was sufficiently concerned to rise from his courtside seat and urge her on with an enthusiastic burst of applause.
The reasons for Swiatek’s irritation were plain. A habitual frontrunner, she had won seven of the afternoon’s first eight points only to be denied an early break by a combination of her own mistakes and the quality of Garcia’s bold, first-strike tennis. The manner in which the 20th-ranked Frenchwoman went on to take the lead in the seventh game, creating her first break point of the contest with a horribly mishit winner, then converting it with a searing return to the Pole’s feet, doubtless did little to improve Swiatek’s mood.
So with Garcia a set to the good and serving at 0-1, 40-15, and Swiatek’s fuse gently burning down, the signs were not encouraging for Poland. Sensing as much, the sizeable Polish contingent in the crowd sought to raise her spirits. As chants of “Iga!” rained down, Swiatek bounced on the spot, pulled her cap down low, and set about turning the tide. Garcia overcooked a forehand, Swiatek treated the Frenchwoman to taste of her own medicine by drilling a return at her feet, and two searing backhands later the Pole had the break. Garcia would win only two more games.
“Mentally I knew to make a big adjustment because I was impatient, and sometimes I made bad decisions,” said Swiatek. “I needed to focus a little bit more, because I felt like my mind was kind of going elsewhere.
“Sometimes it’s going to click or sometimes not. But you know, it was 6-1, 6-1, so I would say even though I got my level up, it was all these circumstances that led up to that score.
“I wouldn’t say I switched it and that was it, because I tried to switch it even in the first set. I just needed some time.”
Following Hubert Hurkacz’s earlier win over Adrian Mannarino, Swiatek’s victory gave Poland an unassailable 2-0 lead. Katarzyna Kawa and Jan Zielinski subsequently combined to defeat Elixane Lechemia and Édouard Roger-Vasselin 6-3, 6-3 in the mixed doubles.
It is all a far cry from last year’s semi-final, when Swiatek suffered a tearful straight-sets defeat at the hands of Jessica Pegula as Poland were routed 5-0 by the USA in the inaugural edition of the mixed-team event. Swiatek was grateful for the extra day’s practice time permitted this year following the journey from Perth, where Wiktorowski’s side played their group matches, and relieved to find less of a discrepancy between the surfaces at the two venues (“much more similar than last year, comparing Brisbane to here”).
In Sunday’s final, Poland will face Germany, for whom Angelique Kerber scored a crucial opening win in a 2-1 victory over Australia. The 35-year-old former world No 1, playing her first event in 18 months after giving birth to her daughter Liana last February, saved two match points to defeat Ajla Tomljanovic 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (9-7).
Alex De Minaur levelled the tie for the host nation with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 win over Alexander Zverev, ranked five places above the Australian at seventh in the world, before Zverev made amends by partnering Laura Siegemund to a 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (2-7), 15-13 victory over Matthew Ebden and Storm Hunter in which the German pair saved two match points.
“I think Poland is the favourite no matter who they play, with Iga and Hubi,” said Zverev, who overcame a bout of cramp late in the climactic mixed doubles. “Iga is basically a cheat code at the United Cup a little bit, or has been so far. Hopefully we can change that tomorrow.”