Back in March, Iga Swiatek was working on what in retrospect feels like a quaint little winning streak of 11 matches. It was around that time when she was lying in bed and someone knocked on the door of her Miami apartment. A team member told her Ashleigh Barty, the World No.1 for 114 weeks, had just announced her retirement from tennis.
“You already know that I like to cry,” Swiatek told reporters the next day, “so I was crying for a long time. I mean, there was lot of confusion in me, for sure.”
That was 74 days ago. In the interim, she has grown into that No.1 ranking in a spectacular, seamless way that few could have foreseen.
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After defeating Coco Gauff 6-1, 6-3 in Saturday’s final at Roland Garros, that streak has elevated to 35 – and counting – a number no woman has surpassed this century.
For Swiatek, the overwhelming favorite heading into Paris, history has become the most relevant means of measure.
The statisticians will document her progress going forward as she seeks to move past Venus Williams’ mark of 35 straight match-wins (2000) and chase down Roger Federer’s 42 (2006) and Novak Djokovic’s 43 (2011). Swiatek, who turned 21 on Tuesday, has won 56 of her past 58 sets. The 2020 French Open champion is the youngest woman to collect her second major title since 19-year-old Maria Sharapova won the 2006 US Open.
So much attention has been directed toward Swiatek’s streak, but her recent string of success is in many respects the result of the mental endurance she has showed in recent months.
In one of the few matches in which she was pressured, from Zheng Qinwen earlier this week in the quarterfinals, Swiatek did not panic.
“I felt like I can really even cope with being in a stressful situation on court, and it was like a cold shower,” she said later in press. “So when I was playing quarterfinal, I felt like even if something is going to go bad, I still know how to come back.
“So this match was for sure the toughest one mentally, but when I got over it, I felt stronger. So I tried to take just positives from it.”
That in itself was a small sample of the her resolve.
29 - The #1 ranked player has won the first 29 matches in 2022 (11 by Ashleigh #Barty and 18 by Iga #Swiatek): the last time the #1 has won the first 29 encounters of the year was in 2013 (14 by Victoria Azarenka and 15 by Serena Williams). Connections.@WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/HkN6otDpSb— OptaAce (@OptaAce) June 4, 2022
“A lot has changed in my mind and for sure I also realize that I can actually be No.1 and really cope with it properly,” Swiatek said earlier in the tournament. “So that's pretty cool.”
At 21, Swiatek is the youngest player in the Top 10 -- more than three years junior to Aryna Sabalenka and Paula Badosa – but she has played with the poise of a much more experienced player.
Before the final, Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver both identified Gauff’s erratic forehand and weak second serve as the critical elements. Swiatek’s chief strategy was targeting Gauff’s forehand – of the teenager’s 23 unforced errors, 16 came on that wing.
Gauff won only eight of 20 second-serve points, including three costly double faults. These developments allowed Swiatek to play far more conservatively than if those shots were working for Gauff, who was the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova, at Wimbledon in 2004 – the year Gauff was born.
When Billie Jean King watched Swiatek win two years ago, she wondered how she would hold up.
“What makes her interesting is her forehand is so different from her backhand and her serve is getting better,” King said before the final. “She’s actually quite quick. I wasn’t sure about her, how fast she was, but she is pretty quick. That’s what you want in a champion.
“She really wants it.”
After Swiatek’s first match in Miami, a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Viktorija Golubic, she was greeted on court by tournament director James Blake and Lindsay Davenport. They marked her soon-to-be milestone ranking by presenting her with flowers.
“It’s really hard to expect anything – I’ve never been in such a place,” Swiatek said afterward. “I think it’s going to be a little bit different. Maybe I’ve got to watch if I’m wearing clean clothes and representing tennis well.
“From my perspective, I don’t think anything will change.”
But, of course, it has. She changed – for the much, much better.