Iga Swiatek turns 20 on the second day of the upcoming French Open, and already she is a student of the game’s history.
Unseeded, she sliced through the field at Roland Garros last fall like a sharp scythe through a defenseless field of wheat. And then the enormity of her first Grand Slam singles title began to filter through to her brain. The demands on her time increased dramatically, and so did the expectations, both internally and externally.
“I always try to learn from what other girls experienced,” Swiatek recently said in Rome. “And there are many players that have some kind of regression after winning their first Grand Slam, so I always thought that, `Hey, try to be different. Just work and just focus on not doing the same mistakes.'"
Venus and Serena Williams, along with Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, are the current players who have won two or more majors. Others, such as Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin, have plenty of time to double up on their Slam totals. Swiatek could be just a few weeks away from adding her second as well.
Earlier this month, in Rome’s Round of 16, Swiatek scuffled to save match points against Barbora Krejcikova. In the second round, she had trailed Madison Keys 3-5 in the first set and ran off nine straight games. In the early going, the Swiatek admitted later, she had no thoughts of winning the title. And then her quarterfinal against world No.5 Elina Svitolina was rained out, meaning the winner would have to play two matches in a single day.
After beating both Svitolina and rising star Coco Gauff to reach the final, Swiatek shared her thoughts in typically forthright fashion.
“I was kind of searching for my game, still, even though it was a quarterfinal,” she said. “It’s a big difference between my previous matches and today. My game is here and I’m ready for everyone.”
After defeating Top 10 players in back-to-back matches, she was asked if she was surprising herself.
“Umm,” said Swiatek, considering the question carefully. “I am like surprising myself actually when I’m not doing well. Because I’m pretty ambitious and I am a perfectionist, which I am fighting with sometimes.”
That Sunday against Karolina Pliskova in Rome, she came pretty close to perfect.
Swiatek won 24 of 28 points in the first set, a 6-0 frame that was over in 19 minutes. The final was 6-0, 6-0 in 46 minutes and propelled Swiatek into the Top 10 for the first time. She became only the fourth teenager to win a WTA 1000 event, following Victoria Azarenka (2009 Miami), Belinda Bencic (2015 Toronto) and Andreescu (2019 Indian Wells and Toronto).
“Everything was like super-deep, close to the lines,” Pliskova said afterward. “Overall, I really think she didn’t miss anything today. I think she was maybe having a moment of her life.”
Said Swiatek: “From the beginning, she made me a little bit nervous. I wanted to play as many games with that vibe. On the breaks, I was visualizing that I’m starting that match from the beginning every time.
“And actually I was doing that so well that I didn’t realize it was 6-0 in the first set. So that was kind of funny because I asked my coach what was the score after the match.”
Managing emotion – and expectations
Tracy Austin, a two-time Grand Slam champion, calls the matches at the Rogers Cup every year in Canada. Two years ago in Toronto, she watched an 18-year-old Swiatek qualify and sail into the Round of 16 with a win over Caroline Wozniacki.
“Oh, my gosh,” Austin said from her California home. “I had a wonderful time calling match after match of Iga’s. I love everything about her game. Just saw the growth and her physicality. She was sliding on hardcourts, she gets so much rate of shot. Her groundstrokes are so heavy, the ball bounces up off the court.
“I like the way she competed and managed her emotions on the court. I knew then that it was just a matter of time. There’s just too much talent, too much shot selection for her not to come through in a big way. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.”
A little more than a year later, that final triumph in Paris over Kenin was Swiatek’s last match in 2020. Which was probably a good thing. She had more than three months to process her achievement and arrived in Australia in a good place. She reached the Australian Open Round of 16, but fell to Halep – whom she upset in the same round at Paris. The subsequent field in Adelaide wasn’t as daunting, but Swiatek dismissed No.12 Bencic in straight sets to win the second WTA title of her brief career. Dubai and Miami produced a disappointing 2-2 record before she and her team took two weeks off to prepare for the clay-court season.
When she returned, in late April at the Mutua Madrid Open, Swiatek saw some improvement.
Wins over Alison Riske and Laura Siegemund placed her in the path of world No.1 Barty. In a meeting of the two most recent French Open champions, Barty prevailed 7-5, 6-4 in the Round of 16.
Before Rome, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver had some questions.
“She’s entering the stage right now of how is she living with that rarefied air?” Shriver said. “It’s something so many players have struggled with. There’s a lot to be determined on Swiatek.
“I know the way she won that major was so impressive. But what’s she going to be like when she has to defend her title?”
Swiatek was down 3-6, 0-2 to Krejcikova in Rome – and that was even before she faced those two match points.
“Usually in this situation I was the kind of a person that was kind of giving up mentally,” Swiatek said later. “So today, even though I wasn’t feeling perfect on court, I could manage with everything and win points.
“Tough day mentally. It was hard for me to be positive. So I kind of stopped thinking.”
Daria Abramowicz, Swiatek’s sports psychologist for two years now, probably smiled when she heard that. The irony – that sometimes the key to mental success for Swiatek is to stop thinking – could not have escaped her.
“Not overanalyzing everything is a key,” Swiatek said. “I was just focusing on keeping my legs low, which is basic stuff in tennis. But actually it worked.
“Sometimes you have to keep your mind busy and do the easiest stuff.”
For a teenager, Swiatek is extraordinarily self-aware and has assembled a formidable support group around her. Everybody at the WTA level can hit forehands and backhands, she says, but mental strength is what separates champions from finalists.
Abramowicz has helped her make that distinction.
“I was always open to working with psychologists because I thought it was a part of the game that I want to improve on,” Swiatek said after winning in Rome. “We have a lot of things, like mental training stuff. Things we are trying to implement in practice and matches. Daria is doing a great job. I feel like I can trust her completely.”
And, at the end of the day, Swiatek has learned that she can trust herself.
Table for two?
So who might join the multi-Slam winners in Paris?
Can Swiatek, Barty, Andreescu, Kenin, Jelena Ostapenko or Sloane Stephens change the trajectory of their career in a single fortnight?
While many prognosticators like the chances of the past two champions at Roland Garros – Barty and Swiatek – the Aussie could come in compromised. She was wearing a compression sleeve on her right arm and a wrap on her left thigh when she retired to Gauff in the Rome quarterfinals. Andreescu has struggled with injuries and Covid-19 travel complications. Swiatek and Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka come in the best combination of health and momentum.
Would anything less than a title defense be a disappointment?
“No. For sure, not,” Swiatek said in Rome. “Look at my results in Grand Slams, mostly I am doing fourth rounds. This is also a good result, as you know, Top 16. So, I don’t have expectations like that.
“It’s not easy to be a defending champion, so I’m just happy in a situation like that and I can enjoy being there, and just being in Paris because I love playing there. So I’m not worrying about that.”
Austin believes it’s an exciting time for women’s tennis.
“For most of our history it’s been all about consistent winners – they’re winning their eighth or tenth Grand Slam,” she said. “Now players are coming through and more players are winning majors. It’s unpredictable.”
For Swiatek, nearly every interview over the past seventh months has included a question about Roland Garros.
“I wasn’t thinking about it a lot because, really, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’ve never been in a situation like that. I’m just trying to remind myself that many players, as Sofia [Kenin] said, are struggling with that [nerves in defending first Slam]. So maybe it will be the best option to give myself.
“Be there and see how it is. Play your game.”
Swiatek has discovered that giving in doesn’t mean giving up.
“A perfectionist would always say, ‘I’m not playing perfect, so it’s bad,’” she said. “But it’s not like that. I’m still learning how to win ugly, sometimes perform good even though I’m not feeling perfect.
“I want to learn how to do that. I also think it comes with age and experience. I still need some time.”