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Staying power: Can Swiatek bring consistency to top of women’s game?
Judging by recent evidence, it’s only getting tougher for today’s young players to shoulder the pressures of competition for long periods of time. But the Polish teen—one of the first Gen Z Slam champions—hopes to bust a few myths along the way.
January 25, 2021
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Tennis, we’re told, is a solo sport, a loner’s sport, a sport where it doesn’t pay to make friends. Those who play it must learn to celebrate their wins, mourn their defeats, and shoulder the pressures of competition all by themselves.
Judging by recent evidence, it’s only getting tougher for today’s young players to shoulder that pressure for long periods of time. On the men’s side, the Next Gen continues to labor in the long shadows of the Big 3. On the WTA side, once-budding superstars have wilted into one-Slam wonders. The last 15 women’s majors have had 11 different winners.
Don’t tell any of that to the latest and youngest of those winners, Iga Swiatek.
The 19-year-old Warsaw native may have buzz-sawed her way through the 2020 French Open without dropping a set, but she knows all about the pitfalls of this pitiless sport.
She’s heard it described as “lonely.” She grew up listening to her father tell her that friendships don’t exist in tennis. She’s watched as tour-mates like Jelena Ostapenko (who also won her first tour-level title at Roland Garros) and Sloane Stephens have failed to follow-up on their Grand Slam breakthroughs, and as others have struggled to cope with the expectations that come with early success.
Now it’s Swiatek’s turn to cope with those expectations. She’s the first player from her country, and one of the first from her generation—Gen Z—to win a major, but she says she’s ready.
“When I came back to Poland, my life changed completely,” Swiatek says of her time at home after Roland Garros. “It was really weird, because after a few days I had my own security, which was a totally new thing for me. I went to Warsaw and saw people were recognizing me, and I think I handled it well. I’m comfortable with that attention, and I appreciate it.”
In a relatively out-of-nowhere performance, Swiatek blitzed the field at the French Open, winning all 14 sets she played. She wasn’t even taken past 6–4. (Getty Images)
Rather than a burden she has to face alone, Swiatek sees her success, and the interest it generates, as an opportunity to unite people.
“I know people like to be divided,” Swiatek says. “Sports is one of those things that can really bring them together, because it’s not about the politics and it’s not about somebody’s opinion. It’s just sports and anybody can cheer.
“I want people to get together by watching sports. It’s one of my goals to do that.”
Do these seem like grand plans for a young woman who, as of last spring, was still juggling her practice sessions with her high school math homework? Not to Swiatek. While her ascent may have seemed meteoric to us, it’s something she has been methodically working toward since her early days as a junior. The objective for her wasn’t just to become a major champion; it was to become a reliable champion.
“My goal has been to be consistent since I was 15,” Swiatek says. “This is what women’s tennis needs. I wish I could be a consistent player right now, but I know I need a few years to do that. My mindset is really good, and that’s not just my opinion.”
Who shares that opinion? Daria Abramowicz, the Warsaw-based sports psychologist who has been working with Swiatek for two years. Unlike most of her peers, Swiatek’s preparation involves more than bashing balls and doing speed drills—it also involves training her mind.
This is something of a revolutionary concept in tennis, a sport whose players have traditionally been loath to admit psychological weakness. But Swiatek has embraced the process of delving into her emotions. When she was asked, on the Polish interview show My First Time, what the three most important numbers in her phone were, she said, “My dad, my sister, and right now Daria Abramowicz.”
“She just made me smarter,” Swiatek said of Abramowicz. “I know more about sports and I know more about psychology, and I can understand my own feelings and say them out loud.”
Swiatek credits much of her ascent to her parents—as well as Abramowicz. (Getty Images)
Abramowicz has taught Swiatek that you can adjust your attitude in the same way that you can adjust your strokes. Swiatek credits one of those adjustments with helping her find the right approach for Roland Garros.
“My preseason was so good that I came to New York with really high expectations,” she says of the training she did during the COVID lockdowns before the US Open. “And that was the wrong mindset for matches, because I was thinking about how I can play in practices, and that I’m not using 100 percent of my potential. We worked on that, and I changed that.”
If Swiatek’s new-school attitude toward psychology is a novelty for tennis, so is her attitude toward the sport’s individualist ethos. To her, the idea that it has to be a solitary pursuit is a myth, as is the idea that the women’s tour is a den of cutthroat combatants.
“I sank into this world, and it helped me,” Swiatek said of the WTA, on My First Time. “For me, it has always been important to be able to separate friendships from what’s going on on the court. To survive for a long time on tour, you can’t be lonely.”
“In the beginning, even my dad would say friendships didn’t exist in tennis,” added Swiatek, who often plays doubles and who counts 19-year-old Kaja Juvan of Slovenia as a close friend who has helped her transition from the juniors to the pros. “If you try hard enough and have a positive attitude you can make it work.”
This isn’t to say that Swiatek doesn’t want to win as much as anyone else who plays a sport for a living. Like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, Swiatek’s interest in tennis was sparked by her desire to beat her older sister.
Swiatek’s father, Tomasz, an Olympic rower, wanted his daughters to play an individual sport. After swimming proved to be a bust—“I was scared of water,” Iga says—they settled on tennis. While her sister Agata took lessons, Iga hit against a wall with Tomasz.
“She’s three years older and I always wanted to be like her,” Swiatek told WTA Insider. “I was always competing with her when I was younger and I always lost, so that was very motivating.”
Swiatek never got a chance to beat Agata, who stopped playing four years ago. But Iga soon found another idol in Rafael Nadal.
“I loved how he played because he was different,” she says.
Maybe watching Rafa rip a topspin forehand rubbed off on Swiatek, who generates plenty of RPMs of her own. The ball seems to leap off her strings.
“I don’t actually know where that came from,” Swiatek said, “because I always played like huge topspin and I love to spin the ball.”
The WTA’s elite have noticed, and they can see that the 5’9” Swiatek’s power is going to be a problem.
“It’s just so different, the way she strikes the ball, I can’t even compare it,” said Osaka, who is friends with Swiatek. “But for me, the most impressive thing I saw was her movement. Like, she’s a crazy-good mover.”
“She was everywhere and she hit the balls in very strong, very powerful,” Simona Halep said after losing to Swiatek in the Roland Garros round of 16.
“She’s got a really good forehand, the spinny forehand up the line, really good backhand down the line,” Sofia Kenin said after losing to Swiatek in the final.
According to Swiatek’s coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, her best quality is the way she shows up on match day.
“She’s a beast of the competition, I would call her,” he said. “She loves to compete, never likes to practice, it’s boring for her. But when it comes to the matches, she’s there.”
Swiatek’s most promising quality may be her ability to treat each match as a learning opportunity, and to take her career one step at a time. When she lost 6–1, 6–0 to Halep at Roland Garros in 2019, she didn’t try to put that disaster behind her right away. Instead, Swiatek said, “It’s a good experience for me. I’ll remember that match. I’ll learn from it even though it lasted, like, 40 minutes.”
Sixteen months later, she showed what she had learned by beating Halep, 6–1, 6–2, in under an hour.
Even for someone who loves the tour, who knows how to control her emotions, and who has a strong support group, the road to the top will have its bumps. Swiatek may be a “crazy-good mover” and have Nadal-like pop, but she has yet to match his ironclad consistency. There’s that word again. It’s what Swiatek has been aiming for since she was 15, and what she’ll aim to bring in 2021.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a consistent player,” she says, “but that’s why I have my team. I have to have this distance. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”
She laughs a little at how daunting the challenge seems, before taking it up again.
“That doesn’t change that I’m going to be working 100 percent day to day to do it.”
Swiatek may not believe tennis is a lonely sport, but she knows her future in it lies in her own hands, and her own mind, alone. They seem capable of keeping her at the top of the game for as long as she wants to stay there.