July 4, 2022

When Will Iga Swiatek Lose Again?

With her cap tugged down determinedly, whatever the weather, and her face set like she’s struggling through a math final, Iga Świątek is not a player you watch if you want your tennis suffused with a sense of effortlessness and joy. That cap was shadowing her firm-set features even at last month’s Stuttgart Open, which took place indoors. But when her opponent in the final of that event, the hard-hitting Aryna Sabalenka, who was serving to survive championship point, sailed one last forehand long, Świątek was seized by what, for all the world, looked like rapture. She tossed her racquet toward the rafters. She smiled, then smiled wider, and kept smiling. She raised a hand and held up four fingers. If you’d been following Świątek’s matches, as winter turned to spring, you knew what that meant. It was the fourth tournament she’d won in a row.

Tennis is not designed to encourage long winning streaks. You win a set and you are back to 0–0 to start the next one. You win a tournament, and then the next, and you end up playing more than anyone else—perhaps more than anyone should, given the punishing nature of tennis today and the sheer number of highly competitive players at every big tournament now. Martina Navratilova won an astonishing seventy-four matches in a row, in 1984, but, without taking anything away from what is a remarkable feat by a superb athlete and player, it is fair to say that those were different times.

Świątek’s streak began in late February, in Doha, where she rolled Anett Kontaveit, of Estonia, in the final, 6–2, 6–0. It continued at Indian Wells, where she overwhelmed Maria Sakkari, of Greece, 6–4, 6–1. In Miami, she dispatched Naomi Osaka, 6–4, 6–0, completing the so-called Sunshine Double (winning Indian Wells and Miami in the same year), becoming just the fourth woman to do so. She left Miami ranked No. 1 in the world, moving up from No. 2 with the sudden retirement of Australia’s Ash Barty. Then, moving from hard courts to clay, she won in Stuttgart, which brought her match-winning streak to twenty-three. She chose to skip the Madrid Open, to get some rest. She extended her run to five titles, and twenty-eight matches, in the final of the Italian Open, in Rome, last Sunday, defeating Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur—who, on her best days, is the trickiest out in the women’s game—6–2, 6–2. There, Świątek gave a hint of the pressure involved in keeping a winning streak alive: after securing championship point, she fell to her knees, shaking and sobbing. No woman had won five titles in a row since Serena Williams, in 2013. Now, the grandest of clay-court events, the French Open, is about to get under way, on Sunday. It could not be clearer that Świątek has earned her No. 1 ranking. She can undo anyone—and sort of has.

Świątek poses on a rooftop with the Suzanne Lenglen Cup.

Świątek has won the French Open before—in 2020, when it was held not in late spring but in the first days of fall, in a COVID-induced rejiggering of the tennis calendar. At the time, Iga Świątek was all but unknown to casual fans: a nineteen-year-old from Poland, ranked outside the top fifty, with not a single W.T.A. title to her name. She won on the famed terre battue not by grinding and edging her way through the draw but by whipping and drubbing: she didn’t drop a set and lost only twenty-eight games in all. In the fourth round, she beat Simona Halep, one of the era’s finest clay-court players and then the No. 2 woman in the world, 6–1, 6–2. She won her last set, the second one of the final, against the American Sofia Kenin, 6–1, and it was more lopsided than the score line indicates.

It’s never easy for a teen-age Grand Slam sensation to adjust to life on tour after winning a big one. The weekly regimen of travel-practice-compete-travel, the soreness and strains, the distractions of media and sponsorship obligations can wear a player down. (See Emma Raducanu, who, after a stunning run to the championship at the U.S. Open late last summer, has made two coaching changes and lost in the first or second round of multiple tournaments.) Still, last year, Świątek rose steadily through the rankings—she ended the season at No. 9—by employing the tools that made her imposing the previous fall. She’s fast, she has the endurance of a distance runner, and her balance is superb (she’s worked to improve it by hitting tennis balls while floating on a paddleboard). She brushes her forehand with more topspin than any other player in the women’s game, and hits it hard, too, like her hero, Rafael Nadal. She can drive opponents back with her topspin forehand, then befuddle them with her ability to change the direction of incoming balls. Throughout the year, she built points carefully in rallies, waiting until she had opened up enough court space before blasting a ball with a view toward ending the point. She had, in essence, a beautiful clay-court game. (It was never on better display than a year ago in Rome, when, in just forty-six eye-widening minutes, she won the Italian Open final, crushing the Czech Republic’s Karolína Plíšková, 6–0, 6–0.)

But Świątek wanted to be more than a clay-court specialist. At the end of last season, she parted with her longtime coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, and brought on another Pole, Tomasz Wiktorowski, who’d coached Agnieska Radwańska, a Polish tennis star of the early twenty-tens. Soon enough, as this season got under way on hard courts in Australia, there were glimpses of a new Iga. She was taking the ball earlier, on the short-hop rise. She was hitting fewer rally balls up the middle of the court, and looking to end points more quickly by seeking the corners with big shots from either wing. And she was teeing off, successfully, on her service returns: this season, so far, she has won more than half her return games, a remarkable number, with no other player in the women’s top ten even close. Świątek has embraced quick-strike attack tennis—not during every point, but on many, many points, and especially in high-pressure moments, when it might be least expected.

“Before, really, I didn’t want to take that risk, because I didn’t want to be that kind of player, who is just going to shoot the balls and we’re going to see if it’s going to be in or out,” she said earlier this year. “I wanted always to be solid and the kind of clay-court player who is going to play topspin and stay back.” But, she went on to say, “Players who are attacking and leading are winning. I wanted to also learn how to do that.”

There’s an openness to Świątek—with regard to her tennis journey, anyway—that’s as winning as the game she’s bringing on court just now. She travels with a sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, and has been candid and thoughtful about the mental toll that tennis can take. She talks about professional tennis as a kind of team sport, in which she plays one role—trying to win matches—and the people she works with play other roles that are also crucial to success. Her commitment to tennis has not afflicted her with tunnel vision; like women’s-tennis greats before her, and like Osaka and others in this era, she does not stick to sports. She was quick to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. (She wears her beliefs on court: in Rome last week, a ribbon with the colors of the Ukrainian flag was affixed to that hat of hers, and “Team Świątek” was printed on the side of one of her tennis shoes.)

She’s a world No. 1 who seems to understand that the role can entail more than being the player with the most ranking points. In women’s tennis, that has a way of mattering in the locker room. Marta Kostyuk, a young Ukrainian player who has called for Russian and Belarusian competitors to either condemn the war in Ukraine or be banned from all tournaments—as they will be this summer from Wimbledon, a position that Świątek has neither endorsed nor denounced—recently had this to say: “A lot of respect for Iga. The way she plays, thinks, talks—it’s very good to have someone at the top like her. . . . I think it’s great when someone like this is ruling.”

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