Iga Swiatek is a player in full flight. It began with an unprecedented run at an unprecedented Roland Garros in the fall of 2020. An unseeded teenager from Poland, she ran the table without losing a set.
Now, 19 months later, she is ranked No.1 and the most unbeatable player on the planet. Swiatek is riding a 28-match winning streak that includes five consecutive titles and 42 of her past 43 sets.
“It’s sort of like watching a lion on the savannah, stalking a zebra,” tennis analyst Mary Carillo said.
“In the beginning, it looks competitive. You’re like, `Go, zebra. Looking good, looking, smooth.’ And then within a couple of games you’re there like, `All right, pick up the pace, zebra.’ And then, finally, it’s like, `Oh, yeah.’”
In other words, when the French Open begins Sunday, it’s Swiatek versus the field.
When she won Roland Garros in 2020, Swiatek averaged the highest topspin forehand winners among women, around 3,200 revolutions per minute. At one point in the final against Sofia Kenin, she blistered one at a Rafa-esque 3,453 rpm. At the same time, Swiatek was hitting it harder, on average, than any woman in the draw. Her fastest, 79 miles per hour, was exceeded only by Jannik Sinner on the men’s side. Her fastest backhand was clocked at 76 mph, the same as Dominic Thiem, the fastest male.
“It’s like Steffi Graf or Nadal, when a forehand is your best shot, it is really intimidating,” said Pam Shriver, an analyst for Tennis Channel and ESPN who won a total of 22 Grand Slam doubles titles. “I mean, after Serena’s serve hasn’t been seen in 10 months, I feel like Iga’s forehand is the most feared shot in women’s tennis.”
Examining the hows and whys
There are numerous numbers that capture Swiatek’s swift turn toward greatness after her most recent triumph last week in Rome. Perhaps the most remarkable? Twenty, as in her age entering Roland Garros.
Those statistics are the foundation of the what of Swiatek’s rise, but the hows and whys are even more intriguing. That ferocious, volatile forehand, of course, is the headline – as well as the aforementioned backhand, particularly crosscourt. But there is also pure athleticism, laced with the uncanny gift of intuition and anticipation.
Consider the Porsche Race standings for 2022. Swiatek is No.1, with 5,290 points, with Ons Jabeur No.2 at 2,510. Even if you divided Swiatek’s points in half, she’d still be Nos.1 and 2. That gaping gap, not coincidentally, followed a coaching change. While Piotr Sierzputowski gave Swiatek the tools to win her first major, Tomasz Wiktorowski, hired during the offseason, has sharpened them to a lethal edge.
“For sure, he helped me to change my attitude towards my game,” Swiatek said recently in an interview with WTA Insider. “He convinced me to just play more aggressively. Before, I didn’t really think it was my kind of game. Right now I feel like most of the success that I had this season was because of that.”
Couple that with the ability to emphatically redirect the ball off both wings and you have what one social media wag called “the WTA’s Big 1 Era.”
The perfectly timed slide
It’s not as flashy as the big strokes, but movement is a massive difference-maker in professional tennis.
“The thing I see instantly in her game on clay that she’s the best at in the women’s game by far – she’s a great slider,” said Brad Gilbert, an ESPN tennis analyst.
“She and Ons Jabeur are both great sliders. It’s not a coincidence that they’ve played the best clay court tennis this year.”
Like Novak Djokovic, Swiatek times her slides perfectly to meet the ball – not a foot or two past it.
“She’s finishing the slide as she hits the ball,” said Martina Navratilova, a two-time Roland Garros winner. “What happens then is your body’s not actually moving when you’re hitting the ball, which makes it a more stable shot. Then, as soon as she follows through, she can go back to the middle of the court. Others, they’re still sliding so they’re later getting back into the court – and more vulnerable.
Part of the beauty of Swiatek’s new aggression is that it travels well to clay – she just has to endure longer rallies before pulling the ripcord.
“When you’re hitting a groundstroke, it’s such a different shot when you’re on the baseline or two feet inside it – as opposed to four feet behind the baseline,” Navratilova said. “And I think she trusts that she’s not going to be burned when she gets inside the court, that she can handle the next shot. And she’s quick enough to recover from any position, so that allows her to be more adventurous going forward.”
Work still to do
So, where is Swiatek vulnerable? Is there a piece of her game that could be considered a liability?
“Her serve, her second serve can get a bit attackable,” Navratilova said. “It’s a bit of a sitter; it’s a kicker that doesn’t kick much. So it’s very hittable, it’s right there.”
Swiatek and Witkorowski are already on it.
“Mainly, we were working since the beginning of the season on my serve,” Swiatek said. “You could see even from the stats that last year I was struggling little bit on my first serve. Well, I’m still 20, so I feel like there’s many things to improve.”
Gilbert also had a small nitpick.
“I still feel like that maybe she can be rushed to the forehand a little bit on faster surfaces with the grip she uses,” he said. “But it looked much better in Indian Wells and Miami, massively improved. All parts of her game look improved.
“She’s even added power to her forehand. Listen, when she’s in the center of the court, hitting forehands, you’re going to be on your roller skates. Last year, too, she had a couple of times on the court where she’d get down on herself.”
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After winning the title in Stuttgart and deciding to rest her right shoulder in lieu of playing Madrid, Swiatek took nearly a week off. And then she and her team journeyed to Mallorca and the Rafael Nadal Academy.
“It was pretty cool,” she said. “I mean, it’s pretty weird because I really rested, then they almost killed me on the practices.”
Swiatek seems more relaxed than a year ago when she was defending her 2020 French Open title only eight months later. In her mind – the only place that matters – she says the pressure is less.
Cue the hype machine
“If she can go take care of seven matches, 14 sets in Paris we start talking about her being like a Serena Williams in 2013, we start talking about a Steffi Graf-type dominance,” Gilbert said. “The next thing you know, she’ll have the No.1 clinched by the middle of the year.”
Swiatek’s humility and work ethic – traits also exhibited by Nadal – should help her navigate the sometimes hurly burly world of professional tennis.
“Her game is different,” Carillo said. “Her attitude is different.
“She’ll eat an entire zebra – and then the next day, she’s hungry all over again.”