Iga Swiatek had called her BNP Paribas Open semifinal matchup against Simona Halep on Friday “a test to see how much I can improve.” Swiatek passed with honors, advancing to her first Indian Wells final with a victory that easily can be regarded as a torch passing from an established star to a 20-year-old who is carving out a solid niche at the highest level of women’s tennis.
Poland-born Swiatek saved two set points in the first set tiebreak and overcame a fall at the net early in the second set to tough out a 7-6 (6), 6-4 decision that carried her into the final on Sunday 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 becoming passive in a few games. “I’m very proud with the way I came back in the third set.”
Sakkari has a 3-1 lead in head-to-head matches against Swiatek, but Swiatek won their most recent meeting, on a hard court in the semifinals of a tournament at Doha, Qatar, last month. “Whatever she has achieved she really deserves it,” Sakkari said. “But, you know, on the other hand, I just have full faith and a lot of confidence on my game and in myself right now.”
Swiatek, who made her first big splash when she won the 2020 French Open title as an unseeded player, has so far avoided being overwhelmed by the debilitating pressure that sudden fame can trigger. She has steadily elevated her game and this year has won 10 straight Women’s Tennis Assn. tour matches and a tour-leading 19 victories this season, including a title in Doha. She came to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden ranked a career-best fourth in the world and will be No. 2 I if she wins Sunday.
She was the favorite against Halep, a new perspective for her. “I felt like I’m not the underdog anymore and I want to show something else and show what I learned,” Swiatek said. “That was like [the] different mindset that I had, I don’t know if it was like easier to deal with it or not. Honestly, I think it was a little bit harder, but I also have to get used to not being [the] underdog.”
Swiatek was down 5-4 in the first set after a service break by Halep but Swiatek broke back and then held serve for 6-5. Halep won the next game at love, taking them to the tiebreak. Halep served for the set at 6-4 but hit a backhand long and then hit a forehand long; Swiatek went ahead on another mistake by Halep and won the tiebreak and the set with a punishing forehand.
Halep led 4-2 in the second set but Swiatek earned a break to cut Halep’s lead to 4-3 and held for 4-4. Swiatek went ahead 5-4 on a forehand winner and won when Halep netted a backhand.
Swiatek said she wasn’t sure it was her best match here from a purely tennis standpoint but it was the most exciting.
“It was really intense. I think really physical, because I think we had like the longest rallies I played here,” Swiatek said. “At the beginning I had to adjust a little bit to the new rhythm because Simona was for sure playing [better] than my opponents in previous rounds, and I’m pretty proud that I did that. Mentally, I was pretty strong.”
Make that very strong. “It was a pretty solid match and all the credit to her because she was more focused in the important moments,” said Halep, who needed a medical timeout to get her left leg taped in the second set and struggled on her backhand after that. “She always been like this since she started to win and to be in the top. That’s why she’s in the top.”
Halep, 30, is a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, having won on clay at the French Open in 2018 and on grass at Wimbledon in 2019. She was ranked No. 1 in the world for 64 weeks and was the year-ending No. 1 in 2017 and 2018 but was slowed by injuries last year and had to miss the French Open, Wimbledon and the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics.
“Today, of course, it wasn’t to be for me,” Halep said, “but I think I have many positives and I will take all.”
Sakkari, 26, acknowledged she had been nervous about the challenge of defeating Badosa and reaching the finals here. The BNP Paribas Open is classified a 1000-level tournament, the highest classification outside the four Grand Slam tournaments.
“It might look silly to some people because it might look like I’ve 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 very special for every player, and today was one of them.”
Sunday’s final will provide Sakkari and Swiatek a chance for another special moment.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.