Iga Swiatek vs Ons Jabeur: where the US Open final could be won and lost

Iga Swiatek vs Ons Jabeur: where the US Open final could be won and lost

They are first pair of top-5 seeds to play the final of a women’s Grand Slam since 2016.

It has been a long time since the final of a women’s Grand Slam was contested by the two best players in the world. The last time two top-5 seeds played the final of a Major was at Wimbledon 2016, and two top-10 players have only played for the title three times since then. So, it’s fitting that the sense of occasion could be heightened by a tactical battle.

Different shades of Swiatek

To a casual viewer, Swiatek’s route to the final makes sense. She was unbelievably dominant on tour for the first half of the season and is the undisputed World No. 1. But her run at the Open this year has been a stark departure from her early-season dominance.

On her day, the Pole’s power can be unmatched, and her baseline aggression and intensity can be hard to cope with, the kind of tennis that was rewarded with a 37-match winning streak and the French Open crown. But Swiatek has not been at her best recently. She had an indifferent build-up to the US Open and despite flexing her muscles in the first week, she needed big comebacks against Jule Niemeier in the fourth round and Aryna Sabalenka in her semifinal. A slight adjustment of tactics, and her newfound grit, have been the way forward.

Swiatek was a big critic of the US Open using lighter, regular duty balls for women, as opposed to the extra regular duty balls for the men. And the errors she has sprayed at times, and the lack of timing on some of her shots, are indicative of her issues with that. Against Sabalenka, she changed her tactics, especially late in the third set, making a conscious decision to eliminate errors, numbing the force of Sabalenka’s serve and first strike, as well as redirecting pace efficiently.

The Pole is far from a counterpuncher, but the fact that she has that in her arsenal, going up against an aggressive player like Jabeur, could be a big factor in the final.

Jabeur’s serve

If Swiatek needed a wider range of strategy and grit against other opponents, she will need to use a lot of those attributes against the kind of serving form Jabeur has been in. The Tunisian has risen steadily this year, coming off a Wimbledon runner-up finish squandering a one-set lead, and her serve has done a lot of damage this fortnight.

In the semifinal, she easily dispatched Caroline Garcia – the Cincinnati champion who was on a 13-match winning streak. Garcia’s ability to take control of matches largely had to do with her making her opponents lose control on their own serves. The depth of the return was solid, but the aggressive return positioning of the Frenchwoman – well inside the baseline – could cause most players a lot of problems.

Not for Jabeur, who sailed through the challenge. The Tunisian only had a success rate of 45 percent on her first serve, but still smashed down eight aces and faced no break points at all – showing her willingness to take risks with the second serve too. She can also mix up her options, and even go to the body serve when necessary. If Swiatek is to neutralise that serve, she will need different shot options and return positioning options to keep Jabeur on her toes.

Power vs variety

For all that is said about Jabeur and her playing style, her most distinct characteristic is her feel for the ball, her ability to mix things up and go for big winners down the line, sublime drop shots and low slices to keep her opponents off-balance. To strategise against her, even if one involves her in longer baseline exchanges, becomes a task.

In their most recent matchup, however, it was a task Swiatek showed she was up to. The pair’s only meeting this year was in the final of the Italian Open, a 6-2, 6-2 mauling from Swiatek, and despite the fact that it came on her preferred surface of clay, it was the Pole’s sheer commitment to offence that resulted in the one-sided scoreline. Hers is a game based around the force of her groundstrokes, which can be relentless even in the face of great defence, and there is a feeling that when her errors are within control, her natural power is likely to overcome any challenge.

But the errors have not been eliminated at the Open recently, and Jabeur’s mix of variety and athleticism should make their contest a fascinating tactical battle, with the stakes the highest they can possibly be.