December 9, 2021

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WTA future unfolding in Budapest

As the best players in the world fight for the big bucks alongside the Persian Gulf, two teenagers who expect to be part of the WTA’s future did the same on a dank, noisy alternate court, not far from the Black Sea.

Olga Danilovic of Serbia, 18 in January and Iga Swiatek of Poland, four months younger, are still in their final year of junior eligibility.

But they’ve left that behind.

And for the second time in just over a month, on Tuesday in Budapest, they went after it.

For the second time in just over a month, it was the poised Swiatek who came away the winner.

It wasn’t close. After being broken in the sixth game of the first set, Danilovic won just one more game the rest of the way in Swiatek’s 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Danilovic and Swiatek, still juniors, are pros

Swiatek is still No. 8 in the junior rankings, despite having wrapped things up at the end of 2018. She won junior Wimbledon in 2018, and the junior French Open doubles after not even having played any juniors since the previous year in Paris.

Budapest
Danilovic, then just 15, was beside herself after being forced to retire from a big junior event near Montreal with a hip injury. She went in for a hug, and Swiatek more than obliged. (Screenshot: TVA Sports)

Danilovic, at No. 5 in the juniors to start 2018, never won a junior Slam singles title but won two in doubles, as well as the Orange Bowl doubles. She said adios to junior tennis after losing to Amanda Anisimova in the quarterfinals of the junior US Open in 2017.

Swiatek stands at a career-high No. 140 in the WTA Tour rankings after qualifying at the Australian Open and reaching the second round. She had to qualify in Budapest.

Danilovic stands at No. 114, a little off her career high of No. 96 last October. She was straight into the Budapest draw. The lefty Serb is by far the more accomplished of the two at the pro level, already having won a WTA doubles title, as well as her first singles title.

Danilovic went from the qualifying to the title at the (short-lived) clay-court event in Moscow last summer. She upset Julia Goerges, Kaia Kanepi and Aliaksandra Sasnovich on the way. In the final, she beat fellow 17-year-old Anastasia Potapova, a wild card two months younger who was just outside the top 200 then, and already at No. 87 now.

The only junior meeting at the ITF level between Danilovic and Swiatek came just outside Montreal when both were 15, just before the 2016 junior US Open. Danilovic, up 6-3, 0-2, retired with a hip injury in the final amid vales of tears, and hugs from her opponent.

Now, 2 1/2 years later, it’s all business.

First-round drama in Australia

It was a shame that these two young prospects had to square off in the first round of qualifying at the Australian Open this year.

Only one was going to make it through. And for most of the match, it appeared that would be Danilovic.

She was just a few points away from winning in straight sets in the second-set tiebreak, only to lose 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

(You can’t really find this information on the WTA’s website. Nor can you find out where Swiatek is from, or even which hand she plays with. But we digress).

Danilovic is the dramatic one of the two – by a long way. And she certainly was in that fine qualifying match. But even though all the histrionics seem to hurt her performance, she still fought hard when down 3-5 in that third set.

She evened it up a 5-5, before Swiatek pulled it through.

Tennis.Life was there. Here’s what it looked like.

Swiatek’s competitive demeanour belies her tender years. Generally, she’s demonstrative when appropriate. But she doesn’t waste time with a lot of drama otherwise. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of fuss, generally.

She’s the kid in the ballcap (even indoors this week), the loose-fitting clothes and the athletic-looking gait.

She doesn’t grunt or screech. Her strokes, overall, are a marvel of efficiency. There isn’t that loud, fulsome sound when she makes contact and yet, the ball seems to get to its destination just as quickly.

Swiatek is consistent when on defense or in neutral, with some variety. But she’s still able to pull the trigger to finish a point, when it’s appropriate. 

Danilovic is the one with the visor and the up-to-there Nike shorts. She’s one who always was a “big deal”, with a group of noted Spanish tennis people behind her from a very young age and the athletic pedigree from her basketball-star father.

Nearly six feet tall, you know they’re already coming after her with photo shoots and all that jazz.

Her strokes are flashy and far less economical. But they do have that satisfying “thwack” on contact. Her leftiness is an asset. And while she’s still spindly, there’s evidence of a fair bit of work on the gym – especially in her arms. And the velocity on her serve is up as a result.

Danilovic’s histrionics are guaranteed to either fascinate or annoy her future fans. But whether they hurt her competitively is a question that will be answered down the line.

One thing’s for sure, they don’t bother Swiatek one bit.

Opposite ends of seasons

Budapest
A contrast in (Nike) styles as Danilovic and Swiatek met for the coin toss in Budapest Tuesday (Screenshot: WTAv).

After Danilovic’s breakthrough event in Moscow, her season nosedived a little. That’s neither unusual, nor a surprise.

She defeated Canadian Bianca Andreescu (visibly hampered by a sore back) in the first round of US Open qualifying.

But then, she lost to Australia’s Jamee Fourliss in the second round after having sample opportunity to wrap up a straight-sets win.

She lost to Potapova in Tashkent, and then went out in the first round of her final three events to players ranked well below her. 

The loss to Swiatek Tuesday was her fourth in four tournaments so far in 2019.

As for Swiatek, she dropped just two sets in 10 match wins in taking two titles in $60,000 ITF events in Europe. And she finished off her season going back to the junior level for the first time since she hoisted the Wimbledon crown in July. 

The Polish teenager went a combined 7-2 in singles, doubles and mixed at the World Youth Games in Argentina.

It was a swan song to her junior days.

Budapest
Danilovic deals with her inner demons while Swiatek was off for a comfort break after the first set. The Serb was bageled in the secon set. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

There were no hugs at the net between the two teenagers after the relative shellacking in Budapest. And on the Danilovic side at least, the handshake was in “drive-by” territory.

It’s not childhood fun any more. It’s business. And Swiatek is the one who will live to play another day, as she awaits either No. 1 seed Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium or former No. 2 Vera Zvonareva in the second round.

Who will end up having the better career, when it’s all said and done?

You know what they say about predictions: they’re a fool’s game.

The other big winner – as you can clearly see?  Nike.