MIAMI -- Seventeen months ago, Iga Swiatek was not exactly a star in the grand galaxy of tennis. In fact, heading into Roland Garros she was ranked No.54 among WTA players and coming off a first-round loss to qualifier Arantxa Rus in Rome.
And then in Paris, as so often occurs in the movies, something magical happened. Swiatek happened, actually, taking the title at the French Open, at the age of 19. She was the lowest-ranked champion since the rankings were introduced in 1975. But it’s one thing to win a major tournament over the course of a fortnight and quite another to rise to the very top of your profession, a process that requires years and an almost unfathomable dedication.
After her 6-2, 6-0 victory over Viktorija Golubic on Friday night at the Miami Open, Swiatek secured the Hologic WTA Tour's No.1 ranking. It will become official Monday, April 4, when the newly retired Ashleigh Barty’s name will come off the list at her request.
And when it was over, Swiatek blew kisses to the crowd and did the obligatory on-court interview. Afterward, the announcer told the crowd she would soon be No.1. Swiatek was surprised when tournament director James Blake and former World No.1 Lindsay Davenport came out and presented her with flowers.
Appropriately, Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” played on the public address system.
“The thing is, I never really imagined that moment because, truth to be told, I was working day-by-day and playing tennis well,” she said later in a press conference. “But I never had the strong belief that it can actually happen. So, it’s even more surreal for me.
“I loved every moment of it. It doesn’t matter for me if there were fireworks. The crowd was really supportive, they were really excited. I’m just soaking everything in because I didn’t have any expectations.”
Swiatek, still only 20, has made a recent habit of turning her goals into reality. After winning the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells last week, which elevated her to No.2, she first began to focus on the next step.
“It’s pretty weird for it to be my goal for two days and it may actually happen that quick,” Swiatek said here on Tuesday. “For sure it would be for me something special to be World No. 1. I never expected that, if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen that way.”
Swiatek becomes the 28th woman to reach the WTA summit. That’s a very small club. By comparison, since the rankings were introduced in 1975, there have been 184 major tournaments, with 52 different women winning titles. She’s the youngest player to make her No.1 debut since Caroline Wozniacki, who was 216 days younger, in 2010. Swiatek is also the first man or woman from Poland to earn the No.1 ranking.
And while the No.1 ranking – because it is traditionally based on a 52-week rolling system – is a process of accumulation, Swiatek is currently the WTA’s most in-form player. She’s on career-best 12-match winning streak and has a tour-high 21 wins this year, with WTA 1000 titles in Doha and Indian Wells.
Ashleigh Barty retires:
- Leaves the game as one of the most accomplished players ever
- Social reaction: Tennis stars messages to the World No.1
- Photos: Barty closes door on storied career
- Swiatek, Raducanu reeling over Barty's retirement
Kim Clijsters was also 20 years old when she first ascended to the No.1 ranking in 2003. Now 38, she sees herself in today’s emerging players – and marvels at how young they seem. She likes what she sees in Swiatek, her game, her humility, even her love of Rafael Nadal.
“To see Iga grow as a tennis player, it has been so beautiful for me,” Clijsters said Friday from her New Jersey home. “There’s a certain type of focus that is on tennis, and tennis only. There’s a drive there that I admire very much – a drive that I recognize.
“She’s had great results in the past, but she still wants to improve. We’ve seen others that kind of take a step back and say, `Oh, I’ve won a Slam now, I’ve made it. There’s sponsors coming in and I get treated like a princess wherever I go.’
“Just because you’re the No.1 player and have won Slams, doesn’t mean you should treat other people differently. I feel like Ash Barty did that amazingly, and I think Iga has that focus, too. There’s a still a lot of respect for the other people around her.”
After winning at Roland Garros, Swiatek was named the WTA’s Most Improved Player at the end of the year. She took impressive strides in 2021, winning titles in Adelaide and Rome. She didn’t win another major title, but Swiatek was, very quietly, the only woman to reach at least the Round of 16 in all four Grand Slams. And then she advanced to the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open, a tantalizing appetizer for her current streak – all on hard courts.
Late Tuesday night, a member of Swiatek’s team broke the news to her that Barty was retiring. The idea that she could soon be the World’s No.1 player hit her hard. Tears ensued and continued for quite a while.
“It was, yeah, pretty hard for me to digest,” Swiatek said.
Swiatek becomes the 10th youngest No.1 player in history. To put her achievement in the context of today’s best players, she is also the 10th active player to become No.1: Venus Williams (2002), Serena Williams (2002), Clijsters (2003), Victoria Azarenka (2012), Angelique Kerber (2016), Karolina Pliskova (2017), Garbiñe Muguruza (2017), Simona Halep (2017), Naomi Osaka (2019), Swiatek (2022).
At 20 years, 308 days, Swiatek is the third youngest of those players, behind only Clijsters (20 years, 64 days) and Serena Williams (20 years, 285 days).
Clijsters is living the suburban life in New Jersey as a mother of three. Jada, the tiny tangle of blonde curls that stole the show in Clijsters’ trophy photos after winning the US Opens in 2009 and 2010, is already 14. Brothers Jack and Blake are, respectively, 8 and 5.
What advice would Clijsters give to Swiatek – or, really, to her 20-year-old self?
“I would tell her is to keep that inner child alive,” Clijsters said after a long pause. “And not get caught up in an adult world. I feel I was able to achieve what I did because that inner child stayed with me.
“I played two hours yesterday, and I still love it. There’s a passion for the sport that we [former No.1s] all developed at a young age. We all felt something when we held that racquet and started hitting a ball.”
Technically, Clijsters is still an active player. Still, she hasn’t played since last fall’s BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, but her five-month sabbatical could stretch much longer now that Jada is playing competitive basketball and kids playing sports require a chauffeur.
“When you start worrying about the pressure – when that takes over – that’s when it becomes so hard,” she said. “People do look at you differently, right? Players want to beat the No.1 player more. Things change around you, but I don’t think she will change for it. Barty didn’t change for it. I don’t think I changed for it.
“There’s obviously a maturity in Iga as well, but you need to keep it fun, to keep it exciting. Keep that normalcy – if what we do can ever be considered normal.”
How will her life change?
“I don’t know about people’s reactions,” Swiatek said. “It’s really hard to expect anything – I’ve never been in such a place. I think it’s going to be a little bit different. Maybe the hype is going to be a little bit bigger, but I’m ready for it. And honestly, it’s part of the job.
“From my perspective, I don’t think anything will change. Maybe I’ve got to watch if I’m wearing clean clothes and representing tennis well. So, I’m going to be careful with that. But honestly, I’m the same person.”