Iga puts friendship aside to claim birthday win over Kaja

 - Danielle Rossingh

Defending champion Swiatek sends out early statement with dominant opening-round victory in Paris

Iga Swiatek, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Defending champion Iga Swiatek celebrated her 20th birthday with a win in the first round against her best friend Kaja Juvan on Monday on Court Philippe-Chatrier in Paris.

Swiatek lit up Roland-Garros last year, when the then unseeded 19-year-old became Poland’s first major singles winner with a stunning run to the title without dropping a set.

Although Swiatek told reporters earlier she dreaded playing Juvan, she got off to a flying start on a windy main Court Philippe-Chatrier with a 6-0, 7-5 win against the 101st-ranked Slovenian.

“It's never easy to play against your best friend,” Swiatek told reporters in Paris.

“I have some experience because I played with Kaja for a few times. I played with my other friends on junior level. You just try to block this friendship for two hours, just focus on the game.

"I think I'm doing that pretty well. It's nice to have that skill,” added Swiatek, who came to Paris as one of the pre-tournament favouites after winning the Italian Open in Rome without dropping a single game in the final.

Iga Swiatek, Kaja Juvan, Roland Garros 2021, first round

Both women embraced at the net as Swiatek came out on top after a hard-fought second set.

“It is clay, it is her favourite surface, and she has had more matches than me,” Juvan said in a press conference, after losing her second match this year to the No.8 seed. “So I didn’t go into the match with too many expectations.”

“It’s tennis, everyone is fighting. It’s a job, there is no room for emotions on the court,” explained the Slovenian, who also revealed she recently struggled with the aftermath of a Covid infection.

Returning to the scene of her greatest victory, Swiatek was all busines from the start, racing through the first set in just 23 minutes as she produced ten winners. Juvan seemed initially overwhelmed by the occasion, as she produced only one winner in the opening set.

Swiatek was leading by a set and 3-1 when the match suddenly changed. Raising her level, Juvan gave it her all, mixing dropshot returns with fierce groundstrokes to level at 5-5. But after Juvan missed two breakpoints to take a 6-5 lead, the reigning champion regained control, and took the match with a backhand off a dropshot on her fourth match point.

Defending the Roland-Garros women’s title is one of the toughest tasks in tennis, and only five of the sport’s greatest champions -- Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Justine Henin -- have mastered it in the Open era.

Could Swiatek become the first woman since Henin in 2007 to retain her title?

“I feel like my game is better and better,” said Swiatek, who plays Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson in the second round. “My coaches were planning everything for me to have the peak of my shape right now. Hopefully it's going to be here. But still even though I have big confidence and I'm feeling really good, we still have to remember that every match has a different story and many things can happen on court.”

Shortly before the tournament, Swiatek had a quick hit with her idol and fellow Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal.

“It was great,” Swiatek said, adding she jotted down some topics to talk about with the Spaniard in order to avoid “awkward silence".

“Even though I am pretty introverted, it was really fun for me,” she said. “Obviously I got to feel his forehand, which was great, and his topspin. That was a whole new experience for me. It gave me a lot of positive energy. It was really a huge inspiration for me.”