Earlier this week, a reporter asked French Open tournament director Amelie Mauresmo why men’s matches had been scheduled for all but one of the tournament’s primetime night sessions. Mauresmo offered an undiplomatic answer. “In this era that we are in right now,” she said, “I don’t feel bad or unfair saying that … you have more attraction for men’s matches.” Mauresmo, a former world number one, played in a particularly splashy and competitive epoch of the women’s game that included the Williams sisters, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, and Kim Clijsters. In their stead, the sport has seen widespread parity and few consistent champions, with nine different women ranked number one since 2010 — a major contrast to the top-heavy men’s field. When Mauresmo went on to say that she found it difficult to identify a “confrontation or star” worthy of a night match, she was more or less declaring that the women’s game, at present, was too wide open and unpredictable, lacking in household names or compelling rivalries.
Mauresmo wasn’t entirely wrong. But she didn’t mention that the sport’s governing bodies and its broadcasting partners have long put much less work into promoting the women’s game than the men’s, which fuels the perception of the former’s weakness, or that the men’s game has benefited from the freakishly sustained prowess of three super-champions in Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. Her remarks, for which she later apologized, didn’t sit well with many former and active women’s players, including world number one Iga Świątek, who called them “a little bit disappointing and surprising.”
Świątek will soon have the chance to deliver a stronger rebuke. The 21-year-old Pole has only one major to her name, the 2020 French Open. But she’s the most dominant woman to achieve the top ranking in a long time, currently riding a 34-match winning streak dating back to February, the second longest stretch of victories this century. On Saturday, she’ll face off in the French Open final against 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, a superb athlete and winning personality who thrashed her way through the women’s draw to become the youngest Major finalist since Sharapova in 2004. Both have the potential to be megastars, and it is difficult to conceive of a more entertaining matchup — or one that augurs better for the future for women’s tennis.
Świątek ascended to the number-one ranking in April after the surprising retirement of 25-year-old Ashleigh Barty. She has more than earned the distinction in the few months since, winning five tournaments in a row leading up to the French. Many of her matches have not been particularly close, even against elite opponents: a 6-4, 6-0 blitzing of Naomi Osaka in the finals of the Miami Open in March; a breezy 6-2, 6-2 win over Aryna Sabalenka in Stuttgart a few weeks later. She has lost one set in this tournament, to Qinwhen Zheng, but otherwise it’s been easy sailing. She spent barely an hour on court in her semifinal match against Daria Kasatkina on Friday, a 6-2, 6-1 masterclass of tempered aggression.
She’ll bring to the finals on Saturday the most lethal shot in women’s tennis, her bazooka of a forehand, and the confidence that comes with not having lost a tennis match in four months. If the sport indeed needs someone to restore order to a wide-open field, Iga Świątek looks like the answer.
Even with that résumé, Świątek will be overshadowed — among American fans at least — by Gauff, the Floridian who graduated high school last month. You might remember Gauff’s grand entrance onto the tennis scene in 2019, when she beat Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon. The pressure and attention and clothing endorsements that followed — not to mention the impatient anointment of Gauff thereafter as the post-Williams face of American women’s tennis — have overwhelmed many a prodigy, including Osaka. But Gauff has kept her head down and her composure intact, improving her once-shaky second serve, beefing up her groundstrokes, and developing a formidable net game, which benefits from her continued participation in doubles (Gauff, with her partner Jessica Pegula, is in the semifinals of the doubles tournament at Roland Garros, too). Over two weeks and six matches in Paris, she has yet to lose a set. And while the sport’s most difficult task awaits her on Saturday, you don’t quite get the sense that Gauff, with all her speed and moxie, will be overwhelmed by the moment or blown off the court by Świątek. On clay, a surface that rewards patience and quickness, Gauff may just be able to squeeze enough errors out of Świątek to reverse the outcome of their last meeting in Miami a few months back, which Świątek won 6-3, 6-1.
One of these young women appears untouchable on a tennis court; the other, still developing her own considerable talents, has handled a public coming-of-age with grace beyond her years (and an eye toward social change; after Gauff’s semifinal win, she wrote a message about gun violence on the camera lens). Whoever wins, Świątek versus Gauff is the bout tournament organizers probably hoped for and don’t exactly deserve. To attract fans to the sport, you have to actually give them the opportunity to watch its most promising but perhaps lesser-known stars on its biggest stages, under the limelights and on national television. And while the final, per French Open custom, will take place on Saturday afternoon in Paris, one hopes the sun will someday set on the sport’s tradition of railroading the women’s game.