Paolini, Andreeva and the paths to unexpected French Open semi-final (2024)

Paolini, Andreeva and the paths to unexpected French Open semi-final (1)

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When Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff returned to the semi-finals of the French Open, it seemed certain that another heavyweight clash would follow on the other side of the draw. With Elena Rybakina facing the 12th seed Jasmine Paolini and Aryna Sabalenka up against the teenager Mirra Andreeva, it appeared that the top four seeds, and winners of seven of the last eight grand slam titles, would all be taking their place in the semi-finals.

But the big four became the top two on a day of shocks at Roland Garros, leaving two contrasting semi-finals in the women’s singles. Swiatek and Gauff have played on the biggest stages, including against each other in a French Open final, and on Monday they will occupy No 1 and 2 in the WTA rankings. Both Paolini and the 17-year-old Andreeva, meanwhile, will be playing in their first grand slam semi-final when they meet on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

It’s an unexpected semi-final, offering a twist at the last moment just as Sabalenka and Rybakina looked to be on a collision course in Paris.

Paolini, the 28-year-old Italian, continued her breakthrough year with an impressive three-set victory over the subdued and then erratic Rybakina. The former Wimbledon champion was unable to use her weapons against the small but powerful Paolini.

Her story is one of determination. The Italian had appeared at 27 grand slam tournaments before managing to progress past the second round, which she did at the Australian Open at the start of the year. A first WTA title followed in Dubai as she cracked the top 20 in the world for the first time. She beat Rybakina on her first appearance on Philippe-Chatrier, savouring the moment in which she could finally be in the spotlight.

Andreeva, at 17, captured the sport’s attention immediately as a rising star. The Russian reached the third round on her debut at Roland Garros last year, after starting in the first round of qualifying, and went on to claim impressive results at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Her shock victory over the second seed Sabalenka, who struggled with a stomach issue and was doubling over in between points, was the biggest of her life.

Paolini, Andreeva and the paths to unexpected French Open semi-final (2)

Afterwards, the teenager provided an insight into her mentality on court, suggesting the reason she has been able to take everything in her stride at the grand slams. “I just see the game, I play where I want!” she said, making it all sound so easy. “I don’t have a plan. If I see a space, I hit there.” If the talented and collected Andreeva can simplify the task ahead of her against Paolini then a dream grand slam final would be in reach.

By then, one of Swiatek or Gauff will have returned to the Roland Garros final. Swiatek, the defending champion, is the overwhelming favourite to reach her fourth French Open final in five years and has won 10 of her 11 matches against the American.

Since saving match point in her second-round thriller against Naomi Osaka, Swiatek has been unstoppable, dropping just eight games in her three wins. “I feel like you just go crazy every point,” said Wimbledon champion Marketa Voundrosova, who was thrashed 6-0 6-2 in the previous round.

Paolini, Andreeva and the paths to unexpected French Open semi-final (3)

Gauff has faced the might of Swiatek at Roland Garros before and offered little resistance. Their 2022 final was one-sided, as was their quarter-final in 2023. But Swiatek this time will face a fellow grand slam champion and Gauff’s mental strength was apparent in her comeback win over Ons Jabeur in the quarter-finals, just as it was when the 20-year-old defeated Sabalenka to win the US Open last September.

Swiatek recognises she will be facing adifferent player. “I think her mental game is a little bit better," said Swiatek. “Before it was kind of easier to ‘crack her’, I would say, when you were leading. Probably every aspect of her game is a little bit better, because it’s different being a teenager on the tour and then being a more mature player.”

The head-to-head points in Swiatek’s favour, as does the world No 1’s 19-match winning streak at the French Open. “I have nothing to lose, all the pressure is on her,” Gauff said in response. But for so long in Paris, Swiatek has thrived while blocking the pressure out. Later in the day, Paolini and Andreeva will be the ones feeling it as they step out into the unknown.

Paolini, Andreeva and the paths to unexpected French Open semi-final (2024)
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