As the new tennis season slowly commenced last year, the then 19-year-old Iga Swiatek was still in the process of testing the limits of her own strengths. The beginning of 2021 had marked her first tournaments since a transcendent French Open title in October 2020 and after admirably reaching the Australian Open fourth round, Swiatek lost in three tough sets to the former world No 1 Simona Halep.
When she spoke after that match, Swiatek marvelled at how much more space Halep had within her game to alter her tactics and solve problems on the court, something she thought she lacked. “I think that’s the difference between the champions and less experienced players,” she said, smiling sheepishly. “Because I didn’t feel like I had many options.”
At the time, it seemed an amusing comment from a player with so much talent at her grasp. Seventeen months later, it is hard not to think about how quickly things have changed whenever she is on the court. Swiatek is already that champion in the eyes of all the other players, and every single time she has competed over the past three months she has been the one with a deeper toolbox, crushing all challengers.
“Right now I can find solutions and use different skills to sometimes come back and sometimes just have an advantage over my opponent,” she said on the eve of the Italian Open, the final big event before the French Open. “That’s basically the thing that I’m most proud of, because I was working really hard on that. Last year I felt like I didn’t have many choices. This year it has changed.”
By the end of that week in Rome, she had done it again. As she smothered Ons Jabeur 6-2, 6-2, Swiatek won her fifth consecutive tournament. She enters the French Open on a 28-match streak, a remarkable figure that still does not quite convey her dominance: Swiatek has won 42 of her last 43 sets and inflicted 24 6-1 or 6-0 sets on her rivals this year. Everyone has taken notice. “When somebody like her is winning the tournaments and is winning with these results, it is something special, no?” said Rafael Nadal, her idol, on Friday.
The early days of Swiatek’s professional career helped to dictate her outlook. Despite winning junior Wimbledon in 2018, she soon learned that while her peers received wildcards and other opportunities, as a player from Poland, a country with a modest presence in tennis, there was little help for her. “Honestly, when I was younger, it was pretty frustrating because I always felt like it was harder for me to succeed,” she says.
Swiatek had no choice but to pave her own way from the lower levels of the professional tour, which she did. She won seven ITF titles as a teen and developed an ability to inflict humiliating scorelines on her opponents that still shines today. Most importantly, she says her development in the shadows helped her to remain humble and those tough moments are embedded in her mind.
“I didn’t really understand that later I’m going to feel that I made it on my own without anybody’s help in terms of wildcards or having opportunities to play in your own WTA tournament in your own country when you were younger and many players have those experiences,” says Swiatek. “So at the beginning, I was sometimes frustrated but later when I grew up, I realised that I’m proud of the journey that I’ve made.”
Earlier this year, after celebrating a win with tears, Swiatek joked that “a week without crying is not a week” for her. Her emotions are never far from the surface. Some people automatically perceive such displays as weakness, which Swiatek firmly contests. “For sure, stereotypes that we have in terms of mental health are sometimes not helpful because not everybody can be like that. I am, for example, pretty emotional and I’m aware of that. Sometimes showing my emotions can help me to perform better or to stay more calm after,” she said. Mental health has become one of the pillars of Swiatek’s success and a theme that she has constantly talked about. Swiatek has spent a large part of her professional career travelling with her psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, who herself often speaks publicly, a decision that has been transformative.
Even just a brief look at her practice sessions in Paris underlines the importance of their partnership: as other players exclusively consult their coaches during training, Swiatek is often deep in conversation with Abramowicz. “On the top level, everybody can play tennis but not everyone can stay focused or be mentally strong so I’m pretty proud of me and my psychologist on the work that we have done. I feel like sometimes I can be really strong mentally and it has also given me a lot of confidence,” she says.
While Swiatek didn’t immediately follow up her explosion at the 2020 French Open with a second miraculous grand slam title, 2021 turned out to be an essential year in her development. She established herself in the Top 10, finishing the year ranked ninth, qualified for the WTA finals and established a run of six grand slam fourth-round berths since Paris that still endures. She ended the season by making one of the most difficult decisions of her life, opting to part with her longtime coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, and hire Tomasz Wiktorowski, the former coach of Agnieszka Radwanska.
Swiatek’s toolbox is growing rapidly and it is a significant factor in what has set her apart. Her success is the product of supreme athleticism, with which she can slide in open stance into any shot on any surface and she has grown into one of the best defensive players in the world. She is winning an outrageous 51.6% of return games this year, a product of her tour-leading, relentless, attacking return of serve. Her forehand is notorious for its spin, angles, weight and brutality when she unleashes, yet her backhand is arguably her better stroke.
Throughout this year she has particularly expressed her satisfaction at how her mentality has shifted with Wiktorowski. Swiatek enters the court with the intention of controlling the baseline against her opponents and is moving away from her tendency of imparting too much spin in favour of flattening out her groundstrokes and dominating.
“Last year I still needed to prove something and prove that Roland Garros wasn’t just one tournament that I won,” says Swiatek. “I was feeling a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations from around but mainly from myself. This year, I feel like I have already proved that I can play well and even play consistently and win tournaments back to back. This time, I feel like I can have more on court and I can focus more on myself, on my skills and what I want to play.”
The retirement of Ashleigh Barty is already a defining moment, the first crossroads in her young career, which she marched through without hesitation. After starting the year ranked ninth, those initial stages of Swiatek’s winning streak catapulted her to No 2. She was only just coming to terms with those new lofty heights when Barty retired and she unexpectedly stood a win from No 1.
Many great players would have been floored by the mental burden of being thrust into the vacuum left by Barty’s departure, but Swiatek stepped out on to the court and eviscerated Viktorija Golubic 6-2, 6-0 to seal the No 1 ranking. She says that she did initially feel the pressure and after a team member knocked on her hotel room door one Miami night to alert her to Barty’s announcement, she was particularly emotional for the Australian. “Again, my psychologist really helped me to remember that the court is going to be the same, the opponents are going to be the same and you kind of have to find joy not only from what’s going on in tennis but also in life,” she says.
Rising to No 1, Swiatek says, has naturally led to a difference in the way that people treat her, a different feeling in the air. “When I withdrew from Madrid [in April of this year] and had some time to reflect on the whole situation, it hit me, as well,” she says. “But still, rationally, you just have to know that maybe the number in front of your name changed, but you’re still the same person, you know?”
People will continue to treat Swiatek differently as long as she keeps on winning, but it is hard to imagine that her success and growing popularity will change her. She is sincere, articulate in her second language and unfailingly polite, and the new world No 1 is also an introvert at heart. Even at her young age, it took a long, hard grind to get to this position, and she will be here for some time.