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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Swiatek, the world No. 1, falls at Wimbledon, ending a long win streak

Iga Swiatek during her third-round match against France’s Alizé Cornet.

By Matthew Futterman

Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1 and the top seed at Wimbledon, did something she had not done in more than four months this past weekend. She lost a tennis match.

Swiatek, 21, a two-time Grand Slam champion from Poland, lost in the third round to Alizé Cornet, a veteran Frenchwoman, 6-4, 6-2, ending her winning streak at 37 matches, one of the longest in modern women’s tennis.

Swiatek, though, did not lose Saturday’s match so much as Cornet won it, emphatically even.

Playing with strapping on her left thigh, Cornet came out swinging hard, matching Swiatek’s power and taking advantage of the Polish champion’s discomfort on grass.

After losing the first set, Swiatek seemed to right things quickly, and surged to a 2-0 lead. But Cornet reeled off six straight games with Swiatek losing the final point with a forehand into the middle of the net.

Swiatek shook hands with her opponent, quickly stowed her rackets and headed for the exit of the No. 1 court, where she had been pushed to three sets by a relative unknown only two days earlier.

She waved and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd as she walked, then stopped to sign autographs before leaving.

The result had a familiar feel for Cornet. In 2014, she beat Serena Williams, then the world No. 1 and the top seed at the tournament, on the same No. 1 court.

That was relatively early in her career. Eight years later, in just 93 minutes, she pulled off another monumental upset and made the second week of a Grand Slam for the second time this year. Then, fittingly, she compared herself to another French favorite.

“Like good wine,” she told the crowd. “Good wine ages well.”

Cornet faces Croatian native Ajla Tomljanović of Australia in the round of 16 this morning.

The afternoon was really about Swiatek, though.

Anyone who has ever picked up a racket knows the most basic adage of the game — it is hard to win a tennis match but incredibly easy to lose one. A few errant shots, a bad quarter-hour of serving, the briefest lapses of concentration, and one set and then another slips away in what feels like minutes. Hopelessness sets in, and getting off the court as quickly as possible can feel like the best and only alternative, even though it isn’t.

Hopelessness, however, was not what led to Swiatek’s demise Saturday. It was Cornet. A fearless opponent can be just as fatal.

That is just part of what made Swiatek’s accomplishments during the first half of this year, in an era of women’s tennis when the competition is intense from the first round of nearly every tournament, so remarkable.

Swiatek lost to Jelena Ostapenko, the free-swinging Latvian, on Feb. 16 in the quarterfinals of the Dubai Tennis Championships. Since then she has won six consecutive singles titles, including her second French Open. She won three tournaments at the Masters 1,000 level, just below the Grand Slams.

In March and April she won the so-called Sunshine Double — the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, and the Miami Open. Only three other women had done that before. At the French Open, she lost just one set. Other players talked about just trying to get past the one-hour mark on the court with her. Many failed.

Swiatek, though, always figured the grass court season might spell the end of her streak. She is most comfortable taking balls on the rise and using her topspin and her power to put opponents on the back foot from the very first moments of the match.

After she won the French Open in early June, she faced the choice of playing a warm-up tournament or two to get more comfortable on her least favorite surface or taking a break and arriving at Wimbledon feeling refreshed. She chose to rest and hoped that her cresting confidence would help her solve the puzzle of grass. It did not.

In practice, her timing was off. In matches, balls skidded along the grass instead of bouncing into her strike zone, taking her most potent weapon, that topspin power, out of her quiver, forcing her to play more conservatively.

On Saturday afternoon, she reverted to Plan A, trying to hit Cornet off the court. Unable to control the ball, she dropped the first three games against a player who truly believed she could do the thing that had not been done in a long while.

Swiatek rallied her way onto the scoreboard, but Cornet never gave up the advantage and finished off the first set with an emphatic overhead. She then left the court before the start of the second set, leaving Swiatek to sit in her chair and ponder her fate.

In the second set, Swiatek went back to Plan A and surged to a 2-0 lead, but before long she had fallen out of her groove once more. On break point in the fifth game, Cornet jumped on a second serve and laced a forehand down the line. Swiatek dropped her chin and walked to her chair for the changeover.

From there, the only question was whether Cornet could stay solid enough to get across the finish line. The answer came quickly.

“Usually when I’m coming back, I have some kind of a plan, and I know what to change,” Swiatek said. “Here I didn’t know. I was confused. On grass courts, everything happens so quickly.”

Cornet won the next three games and 12 of the final 14 points.

“I didn’t tank it, but I just didn’t know what to do,” Swiatek said.

Swiatek will get a bit more rest now. Before long, though, she will journey to North America for the hardcourt season. Clay still reigns in her mind, but after she won the Miami Open in April, two weeks after winning Indian Wells, she said hard courts were a very, very close second.

Another streak could be in the offing. Few would be surprised. And if not, she will always have 37.

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