Iga Swiatek defeats Simona Halep to reach the Paribas Open final

Iga Swiatek described Friday’s semi-final match against Simona Halep at the BNP Paribas Open as “a test to see how much I can improve”. Swiatek passed with distinction, reaching her maiden final at Indian Wells with a win that can easily be seen as a torch transition from an established star to a 20-year-old carving a solid niche at the highest level of women’s tennis.

Polish-born Swiatek salvaged two set points in the first set tiebreak and overcame a fall at net early in set number two to earn a 7-6 (6), 6-4 decision that sent her into Sunday’s final against Maria Sakkari of Greece. Sakkari also became a first-time finalist at Indian Wells with an emotional 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 triumph over defending champion Paula Badosa.

“I took my foot off the gas in the second set,” Sakkari said of his passivity in some games. “I’m very proud of how I came back in the third set.”

Sakkari has a 3-1 lead in head-to-head with Swiatek, but Swiatek won their last clash last month on a hard court in the semifinals of a tournament in Doha, Qatar. “Whatever she’s accomplished, she really deserves it,” said Sakkari. “But you know, on the other hand, I have full faith and a lot of faith in my game and in myself right now.”

Swiatek, who made her first major appearance when she won the 2020 French Open title as an unseeded player, has so far avoided being overwhelmed by the debilitating pressures that sudden fame can unleash. She has steadily improved her game, winning 10 straight women’s tennis ace this year. Tour matches and 19 Tour-leading wins this season, including a title in Doha. She came into the Indian Wells Tennis Garden as a career-best fourth in the world and will be No. 2 I if she wins on Sunday.

She was the favorite against Halep, a new prospect for her. “I felt like I wasn’t the underdog anymore and I want to show something different and show what I’ve learned,” Swiatek said. “That was like [the] other mindset I had, I don’t know if it was easier to deal with or not. To be honest, I think it was a bit more difficult, but I also have to get used to not being [the] Outsider.”

Swiatek was trailing 5-4 in the first set after a break of serve from Halep, but Swiatek broke back and then held for 6-5. Halep held at love in the next game and put them in the tie break. Halep served for the set at 6-4 but hit a backhand long and then a forehand long; Swiatek took the lead after another mistake from Halep, winning the tie break and the set with a punishing forehand.

Simona Halep returns a shot in her loss to Iga Swiatek on Friday.

Simona Halep returns a shot in her loss to Iga Swiatek on Friday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Halep led 4-2 in the second set but Swiatek grabbed a break to cut Halep’s lead to 4-3 and held 4-4. Swiatek went 5-4 with a forehand winner to win, when Halep hit a backhand.

Swiatek said she wasn’t sure if this was her best match from a pure tennis standpoint, but it was the most exciting.

“It was really intense. I think really physically because I think we had the longest rallies I’ve played here,” said Swiatek. “In the beginning I had to get used to the new rhythm a bit because Simona would definitely play [better] than my opponents in the previous rounds and I’m pretty proud that I did it. Mentally I was pretty strong.”

Make this very strong. “It was a pretty solid match and all the credit goes to her for being more focused in the important moments,” said Halep, who needed a medical timeout to tape her left leg in the second set and then locked in with her backhand had fight. “She’s always been like that, ever since she started winning and being on top. That’s why she’s at the top.”

Halep, 30, is a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, having won the 2018 French Open on clay and the 2019 Wimbledon on grass. She was world no. 1 for 64 weeks and was year-end no. 1 in 2017 and 2018 but was slowed down by injuries last year and had to miss the French Open, Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by the pandemic.

“Of course it shouldn’t be for me today,” said Halep, “but I think I have a lot of positive aspects and I’ll take everything with me.”

26-year-old Sakkari admitted she was nervous about the challenge of beating Badosa and reaching the final here. The BNP Paribas Open is classified as a 1000 level tournament, the highest classification outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

“It might look silly to some people because it seems like I won the title, but sometimes it’s not about winning the tournament,” Sakkari said of her tearful reaction. “It’s just that some moments are special for every player and today was one of them.”

Sunday’s final will give Sakkari and Swiatek a chance for another special moment. Iga Swiatek defeats Simona Halep to reach the Paribas Open final

Andrew Schnitker

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