PARIS — Iga Swiatek suddenly seemed lost in the French Open final. Her strokes were awry. Her confidence was gone. Her big early lead vanished, too.
She kept looking up into the stands, seeking guidance from her coach and her sports psychologist.
So much was amiss right up until she was two games from defeat against unseeded Karolina Muchova on Saturday. And then, when she needed to most, Swiatek transformed back into, well, Swiatek. The No. 1 player in women’s tennis for more than a year. The defending champion at Roland Garros. Aggressive. Decisive. Full of clarity.
Swiatek overcame a second-set crisis and a third-set deficit to reel off the last three games, topping Muchova, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, to collect a third career championship at the French Open and fourth Grand Slam title.
“It’s pretty surreal, everything. But the match was really intense, a lot of ups and downs. Stressful moments and coming back,” said Swiatek, now 4-0 in major finals. “So I’m pretty happy that at the end I could be solid in those few last games and finish it.”
Looking comfortable as can be at the outset, she raced to a 3-0 lead after just 10 minutes in Court Philippe Chatrier — taking 12 of the initial 15 points — and then was ahead, 3-0, in the second set, too, before Muchova made things more intriguing.
“I could see that she was a little bit struggling, a little bit more tense,” Muchova said.
Swiatek seemed out of sorts, unable to find the right strokes and unable to figure out why. Players are allowed to communicate with their coaches, but whatever Tomasz Wiktorowski — or sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz — might have been trying to tell Swiatek, either the message wasn’t getting through or it wasn’t working right away.
“For sure, in second set, I was more looking for some kind of advice,” Swiatek explained, “and just a view of what I’m doing wrong sometimes.”
Muchova grabbed five of six games on the way to pulling even at a set apiece. She carried that momentum into the deciding set, going ahead by a break twice.
“I came alive, a little bit,” Muchova said.
Sure did. And yet that’s when Swiatek returned to her usual brand of crisp, clean tennis, scurrying around the red clay with sublime defense and finding just the occasions to try for a winner.
“I just kind of felt like I need to be more courageous,” Swiatek said, “and make some good decisions.”
When it ended on a double-fault by Muchova, Swiatek dropped her racket, crouched, and covered her face as she cried.
The 22-year-old from Poland has won the French Open twice in a row now, along with her 2020 title there and her triumph at the US Open last September. That makes Swiatek the youngest woman with four Grand Slam trophies since Serena Williams was 20 when she got to that number at the 2002 US Open.
“When she’s on a roll, it’s tough to break in,” said Muchova, who is ranked 43rd and was participating in a championship match at a Slam for the first time.
The contest was filled with sections where Swiatek — the dominant player in women’s tennis for more than a year now — was better, and sections where Muchova was.
Every time one woman or the other seemed to be wresting control, every time one or the other raised her level enough that the end appeared in sight, the road curved in a different direction.
Swiatek’s brilliant beginning meant little.
As did Muchova’s edges of 2-0 and 4-3 in the third set.
One point in particular captured the essence of Muchova’s unwillingness to count herself out.
Serving for the second set at deuce while ahead, 6-5, Muchova pushed to the net and ranged well to her right for a forehand volley. Swiatek then sent her scrambling to the left, and Muchova somehow slid and stretched for a backhand volley while losing her balance. Her racket fell, and so did she, placing her hands on the clay to brace herself.
The ball, somehow, landed in to take the point, and a moment later, when Swiatek’s backhand return sailed long, Muchova raised her right fist and let out a yell.
Suddenly, it was a set apiece. Suddenly, the outcome was entirely in doubt.
So then the question became: Might Muchova be able to fashion another dramatic comeback, the way she did in the semifinals on Thursday? In that match, against No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, the reigning Australian Open champion, Muchova faced a match point while trailing, 5-2, in the third set and then completely reversed things, taking 20 of the last 24 points and each of the last five games to win.
That result made Muchova 5-0 for her career against foes in the top three.
Any hope she had of making that 6-0 dissipated down the stretch.
“I kind of stopped thinking about the score,” Swiatek said. “I wanted to use my intuition more, because I knew that I can play a little bit better if I’m going to get a little bit more loosened up. It helped, for sure, in the third set.”
Once again, she produced what it takes to win. Once again, she was holding a trophy — although, less steady than when holding a racket, she bobbled the silverware during the postmatch ceremony, causing its top to fall.