In a candid essay for 'The Players Tribune', World No.1 Iga Swiatek takes readers inside her mind to reveal the challenges and inspirations that paved her way to the top of the game.
"You might imagine that I stayed up all night as a kid dreaming about being a big tennis player, but no," Swiatek writes. "To tell you the truth, at night, I dreamed about feeling a bit more natural in social situations.
"There was a time in my life when I was so introverted that speaking to people was a real challenge. Until I was 17 or 18, it was hard sometimes to look people in the eyes. I hated how hard it was for me. It felt really bad not being able to make connections. But with some people, my mind was just blank, and I didn’t know what to say. Small talk wasn’t natural to me."
And thus begins the journey of a cripplingly shy kid from Poland, who was set on her path towards tennis stardom by her loving, ambitious father. Swiatek makes it clear that she did not have the advantages that a young prodigious athlete would have had in the richer tennis nations.
"I think if I were American, I would’ve believed in myself a lot more from a young age, because they have so many famous people that made it, and so many great examples to follow."
When you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world, everyone is playing to beat you.@iga_swiatek knows the pressure of being the best all too well: “You always have to be ready.” https://t.co/maZXoogOLt pic.twitter.com/B7CcqujiH9— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) January 13, 2023
But if Iga lacked any belief, her father Tomasz filled the gaps. Touchingly, she goes into how aware she was of the financial burden her career placed on the family, one she says her father tried to protect her from. That his sacrifice was ultimately vindicated is her most crystallized memory of the heady days after her first French Open win.
"But it’s funny the way memories work, because when I think about winning Roland Garros that first time and driving into Warsaw three days later, I don’t really think about any of the craziness. Or the medal or the ceremony. Or even the chasing paparazzi," Swiatek writes. "I mostly just remember my dad driving the car. I remember looking over at him, and seeing a big grin on his face.
"He always believed. Even before I did. Which either makes him a really great dad or really crazy — ha ha."
Swiatek also expands on why Ashleigh Barty's sudden retirement last April affected so much. It wasn't about becoming No.1 or losing her friend and favorite rival on tour.
"There are these ideas that we have in ourselves as players that come from our parents and tennis and media and all this about how an athlete should be. But when I saw Ash, I was like, Wow, you can choose to do this differently. While you’re on this journey, striving for excellence, you can sometimes say, “Okay, that’s enough.” You’re in control, the whole way. No one else is driving the car.
"And sometimes the best solution is not giving a sh*t, honestly. I am sorry to curse, but if there is some secret to my success in the last year, it’s giving myself that freedom to not care what people think."
Read Swiatek's full interview at The Players Tribune here.