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Iga Swiatek braced for tougher path to third Paris title with Elena Rybakina in close pursuit

Two-time French Open champion Iga Swiatek is seeking a third Roland Garros title in four years. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS – Polish star Iga Swiatek dispensed any notion that she is primarily a clay-court specialist when she claimed her third Gland Slam title by winning on hard court at the 2022 US Open.

But there is no disputing that the red dirt is still the perfect companion to her multi-faceted game and even less debate that Roland Garros remains the world No. 1’s favourite playground.

Swiatek, who turns 22 on Wednesday, will be the favourite for a third French Open title in four years in Paris, although she might face some stiffer opposition this time than 12 months ago when she was simply unstoppable.

The Pole dropped only one set in 2022, reclaiming the title that launched her career into the stratosphere in 2020 when she became her country’s first Grand Slam singles champion.

She crushed Coco Gauff in the final, part of a 37-match winning streak that eventually ended at Wimbledon.

This season has not exactly been shoddy by comparison. After all, she has won two titles – on hard court in Qatar and on clay in Stuttgart and reached two other finals.

But her rivals have clearly stepped up to the plate.

Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina overpowered her in the Indian Wells semi-finals while Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka beat her on clay in the Madrid final.

Swiatek has also been troubled by a thigh injury that flared up in Rome where she retired during a quarter-final scrap with Rybakina.

She has given optimistic updates on that injury and will be desperate to be firing on all cylinders in Paris. Organisers and fans alike will certainly hope so, because Swiatek in full flow on clay is quite a spectacle.

Blessed with one of the most destructive forehands in the women’s game (think Steffi Graf’s but with more spin), she is also a master tactician who appears to have umpteen solutions to any puzzle on a clay court.

Her mental fortitude is also proven, with the Warsaw native able to thrive under pressure, a result of her work with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz.

So while the challengers have thrown down the gauntlet for what promises to be an enthralling women’s tournament, Swiatek will not be losing too much sleep about them.

“I know that there are players that are more solid throughout the whole season. You can see that from rankings, also from how they play,” she said.

“I’m more focused on myself. I don’t really look at other players that are playing well. Doesn’t really make much sense for me to over-analyse that.”

Her closest challenger would probably be Rybakina, whom she could face in the semi-finals.

A sizzling start to the season and a first clay-court triumph at the Italian Open last week has many convinced that the Moscow-born Kazakh could be poised to shed the “one Slam wonder” tag at the French Open.

The 23-year-old may have enjoyed an element of good fortune in Rome with Anhelina Kalinina’s retirement from the final following the injury withdrawals of Swiatek and Anna Kalinskaya in earlier rounds.

But she has certainly earned her place among the Roland Garros favourites this season, finishing runner-up at the Australian Open, winning the title at Indian Wells and reaching the final at the Miami Open.

Rybakina certainly has the tools to be a multiple Grand Slam champion, with a rocket of a serve, heavy groundstrokes and a calmness under pressure that sets her apart from many of her rivals.

Quiet and unassuming on and off court, she clearly puts a lot of thought into her game.

Her success in Italy, she said, was the result of finally getting enough time on clay to adapt her aggressive game to the slower surface.

“I always felt that I could play good on clay but it was either not enough time to prepare or when I was a kid I wasn’t spending that much time on clay,” she added.

“So it was a bit strange because I feel like I can play good, but it wasn’t the results that I wanted. Now, I think it’s just experience and better preparation and I can have good results.”

Already a proven performer on grass and hard courts, Rybakina’s Rome triumph marked her out as a threat on any surface, even if she has never been past the quarter-finals at Roland Garros.

Swiatek, for one, will be wary. REUTERS