How world No. 1 Iga Swiatek cracked tennis code
RIYADH: Just over a week ago, an exhausted Iga Swiatek sat down with a small group of journalists in a quiet corner of the media center under the Philippe Chatrier stadium at Roland Garros to discuss her feelings after lifting the second Grand Slam trophy of her young career.
The world No. 1 engaged in some idle chat before everyone assembled for the roundtable. She spoke about heading to the nearby Bois de Boulogne – a public park close to Roland Garros – at least four or five times during the tournament fortnight, where she tried to connect with nature and relax on her days off.
She expressed an interest in attending the next day’s men’s final between her idol Rafael Nadal and Norwegian Casper Ruud and wondered if it would be a long showdown.
Swiatek’s own French Open final that afternoon, against American teenager Coco Gauff, had lasted just 68 minutes.
That triumph on Parisian clay saw Swiatek extend her current winning streak to 35 matches, the joint-longest unbeaten run in women’s tennis this century. Only two tennis players have put together longer winning streaks in the 2000s: Novak Djokovic (43) and Roger Federer (41).
The 21-year-old from Poland has won her last six consecutive tournaments – she has not lost a match since February – and heads to Wimbledon later this month a class apart from the rest of the field.
Swiatek sits atop the women’s rankings with a total of 8,631 points; her closest rival, world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit is over 4,000 points adrift.
A fascinating young mind that loves math and probability and travels the tennis tour with a sports psychologist that has given her the tools to gain a mental edge over her competitors on court, Swiatek gave some insight into how she has been approaching these past few months, how she handled the pressure in Paris, and where her greater ambitions lie.
She feels like she has cracked the code
The way Swiatek assumed the role of world No. 1 so seamlessly after Ashleigh Barty’s surprise retirement in March has been remarkable. Be it from the mental side of the sport or the technical aspects of the game, it seems Swiatek has somehow cracked the code of tennis.
When she is in trouble on court, she finds a way to solve the problem and comes out on top. In the face of immense pressure, she rises above it.
From the outside, it looks as though Swiatek currently has the cheat codes for the game in her back pocket and that she has an answer for whatever comes her way. Does it feel that way for her?
She said: “Yes, I do, and that’s great, because I’ve never felt like that before, and it gives a lot in terms of just being confident and not being so scared.
“Because I was scared a lot before matches; I still do sometimes but it’s much, much better to know I can come up with solutions and really solve problems. It’s totally different.”
She is not short on motivation
Swiatek enjoyed a strong start to 2022, making the semi-finals at the Australian Open thanks to adopting a more aggressive game that has helped her become a force on hard courts, alongside her beloved clay.
When she won Doha, Indian Wells, and Miami back-to-back-to-back, she became the first player to ever win the first three Women’s Tennis Association 1000-level tournaments of the season. In the process, she also became No. 1 in the world.
For some, that might be a lot to digest, and it would have been understandable had Swiatek taken some time to adjust to her new position at the top. But she did not, and instead, she dug deep and kept on winning, sweeping her next tournaments in Stuttgart, Rome, and Paris.
Was it hard to stay motivated throughout that dominant stretch?
“I only played like one smaller tournament in Stuttgart, and you know what’s the prize there, so I guess it wasn’t that hard to get motivated,” she added, referring to the Porsche she won by virtue of capturing the title in the German city.
“I’m that kind of person that I always want to win honestly and I’m not going to let go and I’m not going to say, ‘oh I’m tired, so let’s accept that maybe I’m going to lose,’ because I always want to win and I’m going to do everything always to win. So, it just happened.”
That mentality certainly explains a lot.
She carved her own path
Even though she won her first Grand Slam at the age of 19, Swiatek did not spend her teens believing she could actually achieve everything she has been achieving over the past couple of years.
After defeating 18-year-old Gauff in Paris last week, she highlighted how different her journey had been compared to the young American and noted how evolved Gauff’s career was compared to her own when she was her age.
On the French Open finalist, who is at a career-high No. 13 in the world this week, Swiatek said: “I feel like she’s doing everything quicker than most of the players and I’m pretty sure that she’s going to get here someday and win a Grand Slam, because I feel she was raised to do that. I hope she’s going to keep it going.”
So, was Swiatek raised to do that too?
“I don’t think so. That’s a hard one. I don’t think so because my journey from the beginning is what my dad thought was the best; and he made really good choices and really bad choices sometimes, but it wasn’t like I had 10 people around me telling us how to deal with everything and what to do.
“We had to choose our own path and for sure we got really lucky that he made some good decisions and I had good coaches at the beginning; because honestly we didn’t have any system that could help us,” she added.
She never thought she would reach the top
Swiatek’s vision for her own career at 18 was to try and earn more money from the sport and to be as professional as she could be.
She said: “For sure I wanted to win some more money. I was pretty disappointed because I always felt I could do better.
“I was raised to actually maybe be professional and to always have this kind of need to get better, which is sometimes not helpful, because when you’re a perfectionist, it can push you down.
“But basically, it was pretty hard for me to think that I’m going to be world No. 1 because just thinking logically, when you take my country; how many people have succeeded (in tennis)? It was only Agnieszka (Radwanska) basically. So, the probability of me actually becoming a tennis superstar was pretty small.
“I like math and my brain usually thinks about probability so I felt that maybe it was not a sure thing, and it would be hard to make it happen. I always had a plan B, even when I was 18. I still went to high school, and I was really focused on that. I felt like I was working two jobs at a time and even in 2020, I still felt like I needed a plan B if tennis was not going to work out. I’ve never felt like I was raised to do that,” she added.
Swiatek ended 2020 as a Grand Slam champion.
She wishes Ash were still around
When three-time major champion Barty announced her sudden retirement in March, Swiatek cried for several hours, feeling confused and unsure about what it all meant.
Three months later, Swiatek has taken her own game to incredible heights and admits she wishes Barty was still around so she could face her in her current top form.
“I was thinking about that the other day. I would have loved to be in a better shape than I was when I was playing against her and just have more variety and more abilities and to win against Ash; that would have been great.”
Her next big goal?
When Swiatek won her first Roland Garros in 2020, she stood on center court to give her victory speech and said she hoped she could one day show that there can be consistency at the top of the women’s tour.
The depth in field has led to lots of turbulence at the highest level in the WTA in recent years but Barty managed to hold the No. 1 ranking for 121 weeks before retiring, and Swiatek has not lost a match since the Australian passed her the baton.
With that goal of bringing consistency to the women’s game already crossed off her list, what was Swiatek’s next big target?
She said: “I don’t know, I’m not going to lie, it’s not like I have everything planned and every goal ready. I always wanted to win every Grand Slam, maybe I’m going to stick to that.
“But I just want to take everything tournament by tournament and we’re going to see. I have my goals off court, like trying to get tennis more popular in Poland and maybe providing some facilities for younger players. I know better what I want to do more than what comes up on Wikipedia after typing my name. But for sure winning all four Grand Slams would be nice.”
With the steady mindset she has adopted so far, it is fair to assume Swiatek will hit her targets both on the court and off it.
Mastering the grass
Although she is a former Wimbledon junior champion, Swiatek admits she has yet to unlock her full potential on the surface. She has only played the women’s event at the All England Club twice, losing in the first round in 2019 and reaching the fourth round last year.
Her coach Tomasz Wiktorowski enjoyed great success with his former player Radwanska at Wimbledon (he guided her to the final in 2012, and the semis in 2013, and 2015) and Swiatek believes he can help her figure out the grass in due time.
“My only thought (heading into Wimbledon) is I want to get ready and learn how to play on grass better and this is the only thing I’m going to be focusing on.
“For sure Wimbledon is special but for me the most important thing is to bring a good performance and I still haven’t reached the comfortable feeling on grass, so that’s going to be my only goal.
“I don’t want to think about other stuff because this comes first and with good results and good performances, things are going to come,” she added.