With her confidence sky high, her racket seemingly touched with fairy dust and a gameplan finally cemented into place, Caroline Garcia is having the tournament of her life.
US Open - Semi-finals preview : Garcia flying high
It's already time for the women's semi-finals at Flushing Meadows!
Ons Jabeur (n°5) – Caroline Garcia (n°17)
It seems strange now to look back to 2011 when a 17-year-old Caroline Garcia was playing Maria Sharapova at Roland-Garros. Then ranked No.188 in the world, she led the mighty Maria by a set and 4-1 and was putting on a performance so impressive that it prompted Andy Murray to tweet that, in his opinion, Garcia was a future world No.1. And then she lost in three sets.
To some, Murray’s praise might have been taken as a huge compliment; to others, it might have been a source of inspiration. But to Garcia, it was just a heavy burden to carry.
“At the time, when I was 17, it was a bad experience,” Garcia said a while ago. “Mentally I wasn’t ready. I felt that everybody from the outside was expecting me to play at that level every match, so they couldn’t understand why I was losing to players ranked about No 150 in the world after that.”
Fast forward 11 years and Garcia has finally grown into that superstar that Murray first noticed. She has flown through the past few weeks in the United States, winning 13 consecutive matches and, by dint of removing Coco Gauff from her path in straight sets, reached her first Grand Slam semi-final.
Celebrating the win with her customary leap high into the air, her feet have barely touched the ground since she crossed the Atlantic. She has been aggressive, she has been brave and, so far, she has not dropped a set in New York. At last, at the age of 28, she has found out what works best for her on the match court and, more importantly, how to win no matter how big the occasion.
“It was not that clear in the past,” she explained. “I’ve always been very aggressive. I always try to put the pressure on the other one to be on the court. But I was younger. I did not have stress as I have today in which direction I have to go, in which way my game is the best, and to accept that it's actually the only way for me. So if I want to do good, I have to go that way. Now it's way more clear.”
Then again, Ons Jabeur – her opponent tonight – has spent half a lifetime discovering exactly the same thing: what works best for her, how to harness it and then turn it into results. It took her to her first Wimbledon final a couple of months ago and now the Tunisian stands one match away from the US Open final.
She has beaten Garcia twice before (at the Australian Open two years ago and here in New York in 2019) which helps settle the nerves and she knows all about her rival – the two women have known each other for years.
“We go way back, from juniors,” Jabeur said. “Honestly, I'm happy for her that she's back where she belongs. Also, she's working with Bertrand [Perret] – he was my coach before Issam [Jellali]. I'm just happy for them in general.
“I know she plays really aggressive, and a tough game. I will try to play my game. I will try to be me. Hopefully it's going to be a great match for both of us.”
Iga Swiatek (n°1) – Aryna Sabalenka (n°6)
Aryna Sabalenka had given up all hope of having great matches this summer. Blighted by the yips on her serve at the start of the year, she was then unable to play at Wimbledon due to the ban on Belarusian and Russian players.
She used those grass court weeks for another training block and turned her thoughts to the next year. That took all the pressure off her as she approached New York and together with the experience of reaching, and losing, the semi-finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open last year, she knows that she cannot get ahead of herself today. This is only the semi-final; the final is still a long, long way away.
“I don't have any expectations,” she said. “I know it's going to be tough, and I know I have to work for it, and I have to fight for it. I'm in the semi-final, and I have zero expectation for myself. It's going to be tough, and I know I have to really work hard for this win. Now I will just go there and fight for every point.”
Adding Gavin MacMillan to her coaching team to help sort out her serve has made an important difference but whether it will be enough to beat Iga Swiatek remains to be seen.
The world No.1 came through a messy match of 13 breaks of serve (including two as Swiatek served for the match), but she did book her place in today’s final four. She has beaten Sabalenka in three of their four previous matches and after a couple of early-round losses on the American hardcourt swing coming into New York, she now feels a new sense of freedom.
“After the losses that I had in Toronto and Cincinnati, I just wasn't expecting to play so well here,” she said. “It gave me actually a lot because I could be kind of an underdog again, not maybe fully, but just not expect from myself that I'm going to win everything right now.”
And that makes Swiatek more dangerous than ever.