French Open title holder Iga Swiatek saved a match point as she eked out a narrow win on Wednesday over fellow four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, who was making her French Open comeback just months after returning from a lengthy maternity break.

Relentless rain threw a wet blanket on the French Open on Wednesday – but not for the lucky few with tickets to Court Philippe Chatrier.

Under the court’s retractable roof, Swiatek, a three-time champion here in Paris, was pushed to the brink as she battled to a 7-6(1), 1-6, 7-5 victory in a high-voltage second-round clash. 

Osaka delivered her finest performance since coming back from her maternity break, her powerful groundstrokes posing a litany of problems for her opponent. But she proved unable to capitalise when up 5-2 in the deciding set, allowing the Polish champion to claw her way back into the tie.  

“This match was really intense, much more intense for the second round than I ever expected,” said a breathless Swiatek after sealing the win. “Naomi played amazing tennis and maybe she is going to be a clay-court specialist in a while!” 

Swiatek’s victory extended her Roland Garros winning streak to 16 matches as she pursues a third consecutive trophy in Paris. For her Japanese opponent, the bruising defeat amounted to an announcement that she is still capable of elite tennis. 

Their thrilling, see-sawing contest may already have produced the match of the tournament. Indeed, French Open organisers will be kicking themselves for choosing not to give them the prime-time evening slot, which went – once again – to the men’s draw.  

‘Clay is fun’ 

Swiatek, the world number one, headed into the clash in the form of her life, on the back of clay-court tournament wins in Madrid and Rome.  

She was bidding to become only the fourth woman in the Open era to lift four Roland Garros titles and just the second – after Serena Williams – to complete the clay-court treble of Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros in the same season. 

Her opponent arrived in Paris under vastly different circumstances, ranked a lowly 134th in the world following a 16-month maternity leave that kept her off the courts until January of this year.  

The four-time Grand Slam champions had only faced off twice before, each winning once. This was their first encounter on clay, Swiatek’s preferred surface and Osaka’s least favourite. 

The Japanese star, whose four Grand Slam titles all came on the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows, had previously endured a bittersweet relationship with the French Open, having never got past the third round. 

In 2021, she was fined at Roland Garros after she opted out of mandatory media commitments, citing anxiety and depression. She later withdrew from the tournament in order to protect her mental health. The next year she tumbled out in the first round. Two years on, the mood has been very different, with Osaka even relishing the red dirt in Paris. She showed flashes of her best form during a tough opening-round win over Lucia Bronzetti, her first win at a Grand Slam event since the 2022 Australian Open

“Clay is fun. You get to slide around,” she told reporters after the win. 

The 26-year-old mother has had a lot more going on than tennis. On the eve of the tournament, she told a press conference that her daughter Shai had taken her first steps, more than a month shy of her first birthday. She spoke about the emotional challenge of being away from her child when travelling to tournaments across the world – and the joy of being with her family in Paris. 

“Being away from her was really tough, but I called her every day,” she said. “I saw how well she was doing and I saw how happy she was, so that made me happy, too.” 

'Having a kid shouldn’t feel like a punishment’ 

Osaka is one of just five mothers who entered the singles’ draw at Roland Garros. Another is Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, a darling of the local crowd owing, in part, to her marriage with France’s Gaël Monfils

A former world No 3, Svitolina made headlines last year by reaching the French Open quarter-finals just over a month after her return from maternity leave. Weeks later, she surged to the semi-finals at Wimbledon, beating Grand Slam champions Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek on the way. 

Her extraordinary comeback was hailed by four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters, who made history in 2009 by winning the US Open just 18 months after giving birth to the first of her three children. Clijsters became the first wildcard to win a Grand Slam tournament by beating Caroline Wozniacki, 7-5, 6-3. 

However, such feats remain exceptional in a sport that has only recently taken steps to improve conditions for female athletes who pursue pregnancies. 

Serena Williams, who lost four Grand Slam finals after becoming a mother, has made it clear she felt penalised for having a baby when she returned to the tour in 2018. She was not seeded at the French Open that year, resulting in a stretch of tough matches against high-ranking opponents until she withdrew with an injury ahead of the fourth round. 

Such complaints led the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) to change the rules ahead of the 2019 season, allowing new mothers to use their previous ranking to enter 12 tournaments over a three-year period from the birth of their child. The new rules also ensure returning mothers who had a high ranking before pregnancy will not face a seeded player in the opening round of their first eight tournaments. 

Earlier this year, former world number one Victoria Azarenka, who reached the Australian Open semi-finals last year after becoming a mother in 2016, said the WTA’s next step should be to introduce maternity pay for players – a call backed by Osaka. 

"I think it would definitely be life-changing and I feel like having a kid shouldn't feel like a punishment,” Osaka told reporters at Indian Wells in March. She added: “For most female athletes, I think there’s a discussion that your career’s going to change dramatically or going to finish because you have a kid, so just appreciating them more and giving more options is something that is very necessary.” 

2024-05-29T20:14:45Z dg43tfdfdgfd