Listening to the two women’s finalists in the U.S. Open, it can be easy to forget that tennis is a sport that involves strength, speed, athletic skill and some strategy.
To Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1 from Poland, and Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, now a two-time Grand Slam finalist, the game is almost entirely a mental test.
Yes, there is an opponent on the other side of the net trying to hit the ball past you. But the real opponent is the one inside your head, the one trying to remind you of the recent run of bad form, or the balls that you’ve had trouble controlling, or the heartbreaking loss you suffered the last time you played in a Grand Slam final.
A little more than an hour after Swiatek, 21, outdueled Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in three sets on Thursday, she reflected on what had made the difference. Sabalenka had overpowered Swiatek in the first set, but Swiatek drew even, then climbed out of trouble in the third set to win the final four games.
The key, she said, was not the string of winners she decorated the court with, or an extra burst of energy from a summer training block. It was being able to control her emotions and not panic.
“The work we’ve put in with Daria for sure helped,” she said, referring to the sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who has helped her find the tools to calm her nerves. “I think that’s basically the most important thing on the highest level.”
Jabeur, a 28-year-old veteran whose game has only recently reached the level where she can regularly compete for the most important championships, constantly has her sports psychologist, Melanie Maillard, with her as well.
She has been wearing a T-shirt that says “Face Your Fears” around the grounds of the tournament.
“Losing finals is one of them,” she said, after thrashing Caroline Garcia of France, a rival since they were juniors, in the semifinals. “Face all the stress. I think the most important thing is accept that I’m playing a big final and accept all the emotions that are going to come my way.
Familiarizing herself with that fear may be a worthwhile exercise. Swiatek has made 10 finals during her first three years as a full-time professional. She has won nine of them.
“Iga never loses finals,” Jabeur said. “So it’s going to be very tough.”
It’s fair to say that neither player expected to do all that well in this tournament, given their form in late July and August.
Swiatek won 37 consecutive matches and six straight tournaments through the late winter and spring of this year. But the grass at Wimbledon, a surface she is still figuring out, threw her for a loop, causing a level of discomfort that has taken her all summer to recover from. She lost early in three tournaments, including in her hometown competition in Warsaw.
Then she came to North America and struggled to control the kinds of balls that the U.S. Open uses. Less than two months removed from one of the best winning streaks in the modern history of the sport, she found herself not trusting her game.
“My level of trust should for sure be higher,” Swiatek said. Instead of panicking, or crying in the bathroom between sets as she said she used to do, she has tried to accept her uncertainty and move on.
“Maybe I’m the kind of person who is never going to trust myself,” she said.
For Jabeur, the challenge in Saturday’s final is twofold. She has to manage Swiatek’s powerful forehand and unmatched ability to cover the court and hit backhands from a split, and also try to push to the recesses of her mind the baggage and scar tissue from losing in the Wimbledon final after winning the first set.
She is the most creative player at the top of the game, capable of all kinds of tricks and spins. Sometimes she can too be creative, forgetting that she can also simplify the game and rely on her own powerful forehand and serve. Jabeur has won all six semifinals she has made this year, but just two of the finals. She would like to make it three on Saturday, but has already adopted a mind-set that will prevent her from getting too low if it doesn’t go that way.
“I’m going full in. I’m going for everything,” she said of her mental approach. “I feel very positive about this one. The most important thing is not to regret, because I’m going to give it all on this one. Even if this one is not going to happen, I’m very sure that another one will come.”