Well into the sixth game of the Qatar TotalEnergies Open final, Iga Swiatek was scuffling. The gusting wind was annoying -- and so were the deep, measured groundstrokes of her opponent.

Up two breaks, Elena Rybakina was serving at 4-1 when she drew first blood -- her own, on a nasty service follow-through that scraped her left shin. The self-inflicted wound sent her to the sideline, where a trainer went through a lengthy repair process.

Swiatek used the time wisely, discussing strategy in an animated conversation with coach Tomasz Wiktorowski. As Rybakina stood for several minutes while bandages were applied, you could almost feel her momentum leaking away.

Two points after that delay, Swiatek broke back -- and was on her way to a gripping 7-6(8), 6-2 victory. It was her third consecutive title in Doha. The last woman to three-peat at a WTA event was Serena Williams, at Miami from 2013-15.

Seems like lately Swiatek and Serena have been frequenting a lot of the same real estate, which is a good thing. Only Serena won seven WTA 1000 titles faster than Swiatek. Serena did it in her 22nd WTA 1000 appearance. Doha was Swiatek's 25th.

"I never knew that it's so special to win three times in a row," Swiatek said. "But I would say that it happens when you actually don't know about it, so I don't aim to break any records. I'm just playing tennis, and that's all." 

There is nothing in women’s tennis at the moment like Peak Swiatek. She’s played in 23 Hologic WTA Tour championship finals -- and won 18 of them.

A little more perspective: This was Swiatek’s seventh WTA 1000 title. Since the format was introduced in 2009, no one has won more before her 23rd birthday.

That's right. She’s still only 22.

Champions Reel: How Iga Swiatek won Doha 2024

It’s easy to forget that Swiatek had lost her past three matches to Rybakina, all last year. And that her previous tournament, the Australian Open, ended in the third round with a devastating loss to teenager Linda Noskova.

"I thought I'm gonna lose here in second round," Swiatek said. "I wasn't feeling really confident before the tournament. I didn't also have some peaceful time at home to just focus on working, so I wasn't really expecting a lot."

"And then, you know, it felt like if you're going to give 100 percent and work hard, good things may come."

After sailing through to the final, this was the first serious adversity she’d faced in Doha. Swiatek dropped only 11 games in her first three matches, then received a walkover when Karolina Pliskova withdrew in the semifinals. Both Swiatek and Rybakina saw their serves broken three times when the first set arrived at that tiebreaker.

At 8-all, Swiatek stroked a smooth backhand winner down the line and summoned a Rafa-esque fist pump (and what might have been the Polish equivalent of “Vamos!”). On her fourth set point, Swiatek punched a short backhand pass and salvaged a seemingly unsalvageable set.

The Rafa reference was no random act. Swiatek, of course, adores Rafael Nadal. Her heavy top-spinning forehand was patterned after his and, two years ago at the Australian Open, she was a witness to one of his greatest comebacks.

At 35 years old, Nadal lost the first set to Daniil Medvedev, 10 years his junior. Somehow, Nadal came back to win his 21st major. Swiatek was there, nestled in amongst the crowd on Rod Laver Arena, and absorbing another Master Class in the meaning of clutch into her memory bank.

Surrounded by the best athletes in the world, Swiatek is freakishly endowed. But while her athleticism is truly exceptional, maybe we should give more credit to her grit. On Saturday, she started without her best stuff and found a path to survival in that 90-minute first set, saving a set point in the process. Once ahead, she was relentless.

For three years now, Doha has been the spark that’s ignited Swiatek’s season.

Two years ago, ranked No.8 at the age of 20, she blasted her way through three Top 10 players to win it for the first time. A 37-match win streak and eight titles ensued and Swiatek finished 2022 as the World No.1.

After defending her Doha crown last year, the degree of difficulty was greater. If 2022 saw Swiatek break away, 2023 was about holding off the closing pack. There were fewer titles -- though the six she did win still set the mark -- and she had to win her last 11 matches of the year, but the result was the same. She finished on top of the rankings ladder once again.

This year? After winning the first WTA 1000 title of the season, Swiatek has shown she's not ready to get lapped anytime soon. In fact, the win only widened her lead on the rankings table, pushing her over 10,000 points and putting her nearly 1,400 points clear of Sabalenka.

"I wouldn't say, like, one tournament is a specific goal for me, because at the end, I was proud of each of my seasons no matter which tournament I won or what happened," Swiatek said. "You're just happy that you can overcome obstacles and work hard.

"Sometimes the titles are more for Wikipedia than for you, but this season, yeah, I'm just taking it easy step by step and week by week."

The best four players in the world are beginning to separate themselves from the field. Rybakina who has already pockted two titles and leads the tour in wins, forced Swiatek to red-line her effort for 90 minutes in that gargantuan first set. Going forward, she’ll be a constant threat.

World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka is coming off her second straight Australian Open title and well rested after skipping Doha. No.3 Coco Gauff, who won the previous Grand Slam, turns 20 next month.

How will it play out?

They’re all entered in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Play begins Sunday.