MADRID -- For all of Iga Swiatek's clay-court ascendancy over the past three years, the one tournament that remains her trickiest challenge is the Mutua Madrid Open.
Since winning Roland Garros in 2020 -- her first Hologic WTA Tour title and first Grand Slam -- Swiatek has played eight clay-court tournaments. She walked away as the champion at five of them. In all, she has won Roland Garros twice, Rome twice and Stuttgart twice.
Madrid is the biggest European clay-court event missing from her resume. Now she's set to play the tournament as a the top seed for the first time.
"Obviously I want to win every tournament that I go to, but Madrid, for sure, is still this kind of tournament that I haven't figured it out for 100 percent," the World No.1 told reporters ahead of Madrid. "So I just want to get the experience. Winning would mean that I would play six matches, so that's a lot and I can learn a lot from that.
"But for now I'm just really focused on the first round, and I want to do it step by step. So we'll see."
To be fair, Swiatek has played the tournament only once, where she advanced to the Round of 16 in 2021 and bowed out to No.1 Ashleigh Barty, 7-5, 6-4. Last year, Swiatek pulled out of the event after her undefeated run through four straight tournaments.
By her own admission, Swiatek said she's played at higher altitudes only twice in her career, first in Madrid and then at the 2021 WTA Finals in Guadalajara. Despite the variables, Swiatek seemed confident and calm as she addressed the changing conditions.
"I felt like it was flying off my racquet pretty quickly," Swiatek said after her first practice. "But also I have a lot of things I can change still, like string tension and everything. So my coach is already kind of working on that, and I think every hour is going to give me a lot.
"[At] Roland Garros and Stuttgart, my main goal was to play as hard as possible, because these balls are heavy. Here we also have heavy balls, but I feel like they are more flying like bullets. You have to control them. And the clay is a little bit different. The movement and stuff, I just have to get used to it.
"That's fine. I think I just need a couple of days."
🏆This feeling...it's something else this time…after many challenges during these last couple of weeks I’m so grateful to my team and our work. We will enjoy and cherish this one and then we will put even more work to move forward. pic.twitter.com/TEJIKBMpS0— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) April 23, 2023
Swiatek's confidence is not lacking. She is coming off a successful title defense on the indoor clay in Stuttgart to capture her second title of the season. Her title run, which included a straight-sets win against No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in the final, was a meaningful one for Swiatek. Her opening match at the Porsche Arena came after a 45-day hiatus to nurse a rib injury.
The injury limited her ability to serve during her rehabilitation, but she quieted the doubts as her quality improved throughout the week. Her final performance was a statement. She fended off Sabalenka and went unbroken for the match. The very shot that was the most vulnerable at the start of the week turned out to be the key to her win.
With her fitness concerns firmly in the rearview mirror, Swiatek now races to adjust to the starkly different conditions at the Caja Magica.
"In Stuttgart, I think this is more of a tournament that is a great transition between hard court and clay because it's fast," Swiatek said. "Tactically, you just have to play fast as well and move your opponent around, because it's hard to come back and recover from all this sliding.
"In Rome it's harder to do that because everything is slower. You have to be more patient. Rallies are going to be longer. You're going to feel that you're not playing as fast as you could, but it's not true.
"Here, I can't really say a lot, because that's my second time that I'm gonna play this tournament. I don't have a lot of experience here, but the main thing I think it's having control in the altitude. That's what I'm going to focus on."
Playing as the top seed in Madrid, Swiatek has a bye into the second round. She will face either Viktoriya Tomova or Julia Grabher.