In professional sports, where even a whiff of doubt is kryptonite and fear of failure is not discussed publicly, Iga Swiatek is the rare exception. Her vulnerability, her utter transparency, is sometimes difficult to witness.
After losing to Jelena Ostapenko in the fourth round of this year’s US Open, Swiatek also lost the WTA Tour No.1 ranking she had held for 75 weeks.
“It was great,” Swiatek told reporters. “On the other hand, this last part, it was pretty exhausting. When it happens, when you lose it, there are some sad emotions. It’s going to come back if you’re going to work hard, focus on the right things, just develop as a player.
“This season was really tough and intense. It’s not easy to cope with all of this stuff. I’m just happy that I will have time to reset a little bit.”
As it turns out, Swiatek’s openness is her superpower. In putting it out there, she’s offloading anxieties and insecurities. And so, is free(r) to move about the cabin. Swiatek didn’t just reset after Aryna Sabalenka seized the top ranking -- in the span of one month, she completely reinvigorated herself.
Swiatek won her last 11 matches of the season, sweeping to the titles at the China Open in Beijing and the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun. The degree of difficulty was excruciating, but you would never know it from the scorelines. Ten of those matches were won in straight sets; she took the third set in the Beijing quarterfinals 6-1 over Caroline Garcia -- one of nine sets in that run in which she dropped a single game or less. Seven of those 11 victories on the way to recapturing the No.1 ranking came against Top 10 players, including the player who briefly supplanted her, Aryna Sabalenka.
Essentially, that’s why it was announced Monday that Iga Swiatek is the Hologic WTA Tour’s Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Tomasz Wiktorowski was named Coach of the Year. He was the on-court influence that guided the 22-year-old from Poland through a complicated season, one that followed a breakthrough 2022. Less visible were the contributions of psychologist Daria Abramowicz.
With a great sensitivity to the privacy of her doctor-patient relationship, she discussed Swiatek’s spectacular finish in broad terms.
“We as a team, we know our player and what resources she has,” Abramowicz told wtatennis.com last week. “We did everything we could to navigate [the US Open], reset, reframe and apply some solutions on court and off court. She was open to it, fully committed -- and trusted the process.
“Iga put in the necessary work, decided and agreed to go back to the concept of low expectations and high standards. As she said in an Instagram post, `The best things happen when you stop looking for them.’”
Swiatek acknowledged this recently in an interview with Eurosport.
“I just preferred to focus on other things,” she said, “because the pressure related to the No.1 spot was a bit overwhelming in the middle of the season. I didn’t play very freely until [after] the US Open.
“I knew that I just had to change this attitude.”
Building a solid foundation
It’s a challenging time for the world’s top athletes. They are constantly in the public eye, the focus of social media, with very little private space to be themselves. There are massive financial stakes, and they are role models, too. Tennis, which has the longest season in professional sports, is particularly taxing because there are no teammates to share the scrutiny.
“From a psychological perspective it’s always good to create a standard that allows athletes to do things on their own terms,” Abramowicz said. “Say you have an emotional young athlete, a little nerdy, a little geeky, who is learning how to interpret and regulate those emotions -- how to name them.
“This world is going by very fast, so it’s important to create a very solid ground for this athlete.”
Abramowicz offers the metaphor of a house. Success is the roof, but more important are the pillars supporting it. These include developing cognitive abilities, stress management, setting and monitoring emotions. But when the wind blows, it starts to wobble and threatens to collapse.
“The same thing happens with athletes in modern sports,” Abramowicz said. “We implement psychology into the sport to create this solid ground. It means being stable, building self-awareness, the sense of self-worth, expressing needs and expectations, building and maintaining respect.”
In 2022, Swiatek won eight tournaments, two of them Grand Slams, along with four WTA 1000s. One of the best seasons of this century, it also included a 37-match win streak. And while Swiatek defended her title this year at Roland Garros she finished with only six titles. Her major losses came to Elena Rybakina in the fourth round of the Australian Open, Elina Svitolina in the Wimbledon quarterfinals and Ostapenko in New York.
This left some observers disappointed.
The 2022 record was 67-9 (.882). In 2023 it was 68-12 (.850). Not much to choose from, right? For the record, this year Swiatek produced a better winning percentage in sets (.822 to .802) and games (.654 to .642) and was a far better player in tiebreaks. Her first serve and hold percentages were higher, her double faults lower.
Not a bad encore.
In 2024, Swiatek will be attempting to become only the third woman to finish as the year-end No.1 for three consecutive years. It could be less complicated than this year because her two closest pursuers, Sabalenka and Coco Gauff, are defending the 2,000 ranking points that go with major victories.
Last week, Gauff’s coach was talking about the 19-year-old’s diligent preparations for the coming year.
Still a work in progress
Swiatek has won four of the past 14 major singles titles, nearly one-third, and like her idol in his early days, seems to be developing a Rafael Nadal-like dominance at Roland Garros. That will be challenged in the coming year with Sabalenka and Gauff hungry to replicate their first Grand Slam victories.
Some context on Swiatek’s place in the game:
She already has more Grand Slam singles titles than retired Ashleigh Barty, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati -- as well as returning Angelique Kerber. Those with four are Swiatek, Osaka, Kim Clijsters and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Martina Hingis won all five of her majors before she turned 19, while Maria Sharapova won her fourth at 25 and fifth at 27.
The two most relevant comps appear to be Justine Henin, who won her fourth at 2005 Roland Garros at the age of 23 and went on to win seven. Monica Seles won her fourth major at 19, then five more after a two-year absence after she was the victim of a courtside stabbing.
“Everyone has their own timeline,” Abramowicz said. “Some players mature late. But if somebody has the potential to create great things in sport, at so young an age, it has costs, too. I would say that every coin has two sides and that we just try to tailor the process around our player and her potential.”
Abramowicz was there for Swiatek throughout the season, then after the WTA Finals made a series of professional appearances and lectures. She’s looking forward to a vacation in the island nation of Maldives. She’ll fly straight to Australia from there.
“It’s basically a lot of work -- far beyond things like mental training and relaxation techniques,” Abramowicz said. “There are so many difficulties in this sport. Creating this environment, building the internal and external resources to grab satisfaction and fulfillment in the modern world … is difficult.
“The player in tennis is the CEO of the company that owns and works on the most precious thing that athlete has -- their name and their honor.”
Swiatek, earnest and open, is a work in progress, trying to understand the concept of being the best in her sport.
“There are, like, plenty of things that I know I should have done differently,” she said at the US Open. “Maybe I’m not mature enough yet to do that.
“I’m really working hard to not think about this stuff a lot. Sometimes when you force yourself not to think about stuff, the result is the opposite. I’m really happy that I have smart people around me and they are telling me how to do it, and they are guiding me. But it’s on me to actually make it happen.”