A decade may separate their birthdays, but Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek are more alike than different on the court. Different generations, yes, but in many ways they are cut from the same cloth. Both Halep and Swiatek possess an acrobatic physicality and the capacity to transition from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. Each is anchored by a simmering mental fortitude that can make the difference in matches when nothing else will.
And here at Indian Wells, as the pair prepare to clash for the fourth time with a spot in the BNP Paribas Open women’s singles final on the line, both players appear to be channeling their best tennis.
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“It means a lot,” a resurgent Halep said of her most impressive victory of the tournament, a 6-1, 6-1 sweep of Croatia’s Petra Martic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals that lasted a cool 53 minutes. “It feels very good. Gives me confidence. Gives me the boost that I can still play at this level.”
Halep suffered mightily in 2021, her body betraying her in the spring when a calf injury forced her to miss Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Olympics. The two-time major champion returned later in the year, but with trepidation, making it clear that a return to form would take time.
Even this week, after her first-round match, Halep admitted that she’s still far from what she’d consider her top-flight form.
I’m not that close, in my opinion,” she deadpanned. “But I’m working hard to do that. I’m focused on some things. I just stick to the plan.”
Halep, who is in the second week of training with new coach Morgan Bourbon, came to the California desert seeking matches to build her confidence. With three wins in her wake, the Romanian is considerably more upbeat.
“Physically I’m super good,” she told reporters this week. “I feel healthy, I feel in good shape. So it’s just a matter of time to come back to the level I had. I’m not stressing about that. I’m just doing as much as possible every day to get to that level.”
It may seem strange that a top-10 player who has barely turned 20 would feel a need to redefine herself, but that is what Poland’s Swiatek has done in 2022. After ending a very successful five-year partnership with coach Piotr Sierzputowski, the 2020 Roland Garros champion linked up with Tomasz Wiktorowski, the former coach of Agnieszka Radwanska.
Wiktorowski encouraged Swiatek to play more assertive tennis and the plan has immediately reaped rewards. To watch her play this week is to feel the full force of a woman taking hold of her future. No longer content to play passive tennis, Swiatek now has license to open her shoulders and play with abandon.
“I always wanted to be solid and be the kind of clay court player who is going to play topspin and stay back, but really, right now tennis is getting faster and faster. You can see that in tournaments,” Swiatek said earlier this season. “Players who are, you know, attacking and leading are winning.”
Swiatek was already winning plenty. But her latest growth spurt means that she’s winning even more.
The Swiatek-Halep rivalry has evolved quite a bit over the years. In 2019 it was the fresh-faced and green Swiatek getting schooled by Halep in 45 minutes at Roland Garros in the round of 16. They met again in the round of 16 at Roland Garros, in 2020, and it was a wiser, more focused Swiatek returning the favor, dropping just three games in a defining triumph.
She would claim the title that year, her name etched on the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen just two years after Halep’s triumph in Paris.
Their third meeting was a tight three-setter won by Halep at last year’s Australian Open.
“It’s going to be a little more difficult,” Halep said as she looked forward to the pair’s fourth meeting. “She’s very solid. She’s constant. It will be a tough battle.”
The 2015 champion seems to believe the lively conditions in the California will help her on Friday.
“I think who adjusts herself to these conditions has a big plus,” she said. “I always played well here, so I like these conditions. If you get the rhythm, I think everyone can play good tennis here. The air helps a lot. You have extra power when you hit.”
Swiatek has looked comfortable as well, and even when she hasn’t she has found ways to win. In her first three matches the Pole rallied from a set down to claim victory. It’s a sign that she isn’t just more aggressive in 2022 – she’s also more mature.
When she locks horns with Halep on Friday, she’ll need all the intangibles to get past a Romanian that appears to be rounding into her best form once again.