Can friends Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka both be winners—and maybe even rivals—over the rest of 2022?

The early days of the pandemic were scary. Looking back, though, they can seem strangely innocent, too. Trying to bake, binge-watching Tiger King, singing Happy Birthday to ourselves, twice, while we furiously scrubbed our hands: This, somehow, was our lives.



Naomi Osaka of Japan & Iga Swiatek of Poland at the net after their  third-round match at the 2019 Rogers Cup WTA Premier Tennis 5 Tournament  Stock Photo - Alamy




It was an innocent time for tennis, too. ATP luminaries talked about how much they wanted to merge with the WTA. Rich players, Dominic Thiem excluded, showed some concern for their less-rich brethren. Stars dropped their guard and shared a laugh on Instagram.



That included Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek. The once and future Grand Slam champions and WTA No. 1s joined forces in a video chat where Osaka revealed the inauspicious way that their friendship began.


“I felt like you were just staring at me,” Osaka told Swiatek. “I was like, ‘Why are you staring at me? Did I do something wrong?’”In those days, Osaka was the established champion and darling of the media. She had won two major titles, and would win two more soon after, and she was active in the George Floyd protests. Swiatek, still ranked outside the Top 30, was a few days from her 19th birthday, and a few months from her stunning first Slam win, at Roland Garros.



A rivalry rife with respect: Here's hoping for more Swiatek, Osaka showdowns



Two summers later, the roles have been largely reversed between the two women. Swiatek is now the undisputed world No. 1, having won 37 straight matches from February to July, one of which was a 6-4, 6-0 win over her old friend in the Miami Open final. Osaka, meanwhile, is currently ranked 40th. She lost in the first round at Roland Garros, and pulled out of Wimbledon with an Achilles’ injury. Since then, she has split with Wim Fissette, the coach who helped her to US Open and Australian Open titles in 2020 and 2021. In the last 11 months, Osaka has played just six events.



This week Swiatek makes her post-Wimbledon debut at home in Warsaw, on her favorite surface, clay. Next week Osaka returns, with a wild card, in San Jose, also on her favorite surface, hard courts. The truth is, tennis will be better off if both have strong second halves of 2022.

Osaka has already built a worldwide following, and remains one of the sport’s half-dozen biggest stars. Swiatek isn’t in that stratosphere as a personality yet, but she has quickly filled the void at the top of the WTA that Ash Barty left when she retired in March.


Both are also extremely young: Swiatek is 21, Osaka is still just 24. I won’t go so far as to say I hope they can become full-time rivals, because those things have a way of not working out. But they have a knack for creating buzz and interest around the sport. Each has put together an attention-getting win streak, and neither is afraid to speak frankly about politics and mental healthOsaka has already built a worldwide following, and remains one of the sport’s half-dozen biggest stars. Swiatek isn’t in that stratosphere as a personality yet, but she has quickly filled the void at the top of the WTA that Ash Barty left when she retired in March.



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Swiatek is obviously in the stronger position coming into the US Open Series. While she has won both of her Slams on clay, she was equally dominant on hard courts this spring, when she won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back, and seemed to get sharper with every set—right down to the final bagel she handed Osaka. The question now is whether a spell was broken with her loss to Alizé Cornet at Wimbledon.



Swiatek's winning streak is over, but she's also done with her self-proclaimed worst surface, grass.




Defeat was inevitable at some point, of course, but I was surprised by how resigned to it she was during that match. She said she didn’t feel the same confidence on grass that she had on the other two surfaces this year. We’ll see how quickly she can find it again as the US Open approaches. In her three previous trips to New York, she has lost in the second round, the third round and, last year, the fourth round. Going all the way and winning the title would be a big statement about Swiatek’s future, and the future of the WTAIs it possible that Nadal was thinking about the Open, and Djokovic’s likely absence from it, when he decided to withdraw from Wimbledon? He did say that he wanted to be able to rejoin the tour this summer, and not have to go through another extended recovery period, the way he did in 2021. He knows that he hasn’t lost a completed match at the Open since his fourth-round defeat to Lucas Pouille there in 2016. And he knows that he hasn’t made it to Flushing Meadows, the site of some of his great late-career moments, since he won the title there in 2019.


If Nadal has any desire to finish ahead of Djokovic in the Slam chase, he’ll understand that this year’s Open is an essential opportunity for him. He probably won’t do it on French Open titles alone. Rafa may not go into New York as the favorite; right now, that honor probably belongs to Medvedev, the defending champion. But as we’ve been learning for the last 19 years, you should never bet against one of the Big Three finding a way to win a major titleAnd how about the Big Three’s original Slam king, Federer? Whatever happens to him in 2023, his return this year will be an event, and a welcome jolt to the normally sleepy late months of the season. If we can’t bet against Nadal or Djokovic finding way to win another Slam, we can’t bet against Federer finding ways to remind us why we started watching tennis in the first place


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