FORT WORTH, Texas -- If the dinosaurs had been blessed with Iga Swiatek’s adaptability and survival skills they might not have become extinct 65 million years ago.
- She grew up in Poland playing on clay and when she broke through with the 2020 title at Roland Garros, some wondered if she was a “clay-court specialist.” This year, she became only the fourth woman to win the Sunshine Double, winning all 12 of her matches in the hard-court venues at Indian Wells and Miami.
- After calling the Wilson Regular Duty balls of the US Open Series “horrible” in Cincinnati -- the men play with heavier Extra Duty balls -- Swiatek went on to win the US Open.
- While grass is by far her least favorite surface -- even in the midst of the greatest year of her life, Swiatek said this grass-court season left her more confused than motivated -- she was the Wimbledon junior champion at the age of 17.
We bring this up because the ongoing WTA Finals in Fort Worth present yet another challenge to Swiatek’s current eminence. The indoor hard courts are exceptionally slow and the ball bounces low. If you don’t really hit the ball, Maria Sakkari said, the ball does nothing. Aryna Sabalenka actually likened it to playing on (the dreaded) grass.
46 - Iga Swiatek has won 46 WTA matches in straight sets in 2022 (excluding BJK Cup): she is the first player to win 46+ WTA main draw matches in straight sets in a single season since Serena Williams (66) and Agnieszka Radwanska (46) in 2013. Expeditious.@WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/UXNkFsZf1x— OptaAce (@OptaAce) November 1, 2022
Fears of an allergic reaction Tuesday were unfounded, however. The No.1-seeded Swiatek handled No.8 Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-3 in her first round-robin match from the Tracy Austin Group. It was another lesson in the power of natural selection and Swiatek’s ability to master the variables that professional tennis offers up.
What was Swiatek happiest with in her opening match?
“Well, for sure the start,” she said in her on-court interview. “Because I felt like I can really play aggressively but, on the other hand, with these balls here you have to be really careful. So I wanted to balance it, and I think I did that pretty well at the beginning.
“And that gave me confidence for the rest of the match. I’m happy that we got used to the conditions pretty quickly.”
Swiatek -- still only 21 years old -- won the San Diego Open three weeks ago, playing with Dunlop balls, but these are again those Regular Duty balls of the US Open.
“Right now,” Swiatek said before the tournament, “I need to adjust to the ball. I have to just put more energy in that and in controlling the ball.”
Swiatek, with her western grip, hits a heavy ball to begin with. But practicing before the match, she seemed to be emphasizing particularly aggressive strikes. In the match, she hammered 23 winners, to just five for Kasatkina, and a multitude of heavy, top-spinning balls that Kasatkina scrambled to retrieve. Even the sound -- whoomph! -- was telling and, on several occasions drew a sharp gasp from the crowd at Dickies Arena.
Swiatek rolled out to a 3-0 lead in both sets and was never seriously challenged. In five matches, Kasatkina has yet to win more than three games in a single set. On Tuesday, Swiatek's ability to control the baseline sent Kasatkina scurrying around the court.
This was the fifth career win against Kasatkina, who is ranked a career-high No.8 -- all of them coming in 2022. Swiatek’s burgeoning numbers this season have separated her from the field. This was her tour-leading 13th victory over a Top 10 player, against a single loss. Likewise, her record of 20-1 this year against the rest of the Fort Worth field is dramatically better than the only other two players with a winning mark -- Caroline Garcia (4-2) and Ons Jabeur (7-3).
Moreover, Swiatek is the only Grand Slam singles champion in the draw, a first in the 52-year history of the event.
She’s won eight titles this year; next in line are the four players with three each. Swiatek won four of the year’s eight WTA 1000s -- the other four went to Ons Jabeur, Jessica Pegula, Simona Halep and Caroline Garcia. And then there’s Swiatek’s tenure at No.1, which is taking on a historic context.
“Last year I feel I struggled with problem solving,” Swiatek said in her post-match press conference. “This year I feel I have much more control of my emotions in sometimes difficult moments. So it’s easier to think logically about what you want to change or what is the best option to win more points.
“Tennis-wise, I have more skills and more variety I would say I’m getting [to be a] more grown-up player on the court.”
13 - Iga Swiatek is the third player to win 13+ consecutive matches against a top-10 opponent in a single year in 2000s after Justine Henin (15 in 2007) and Venus Williams (14 in 2001). Train.@WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/Cea3bhbxUk— OptaAce (@OptaAce) November 1, 2022
In the wake of Ashleigh Barty’s retirement, Swiatek has been there for 30 consecutive weeks now, the fourth-longest run in history for a first-time No.1, after Stefanie Graf (186), Martina Hingis (80) and Serena Williams (57).
And now, here is a chance to again prove her adaptability and conquer another new frontier. Although the sample size is quite small -- this is only her fourth indoor hard-court tournament at the WTA level -- Swiatek has never won such an event. Interestingly, Kasatkina has won two.
In a season of firsts, it would be another incremental step. Afterward, Swiatek said that seeing herself winning is never part of her pre-match routine.
“Usually I’m using visualization when I feel like my technique is a little bit off,” she said. “Honestly, I forgot to do that today. But usually like technical stuff because I’m not the kind of person who will visualize myself with trophies.”
And, in this season’s remarkable spirit of adaptability, that’s just what happens anyway.