With her cap down with determination whatever the weather, and her face as if she’s struggling in a math final, Iga Świątek is not a player you look up to if you want your tennis to be imbued with sentiment. ease and joy. This cap overshadowed its well-established features, even during last month’s Stuttgart Open, which was held indoors. But when his opponent in the final of that event, the hard-hitting Aryna Sabalenka, who was serving to survive the championship point, sailed one final forehand long, Świątek was gripped by what, to everyone, looked like rapture. She threw her racquet towards the rafters. She smiled, then smiled wider and continued to smile. She lifted one hand and raised four fingers. If you had followed the games in Świątek, as winter turned into spring, you knew what that meant. It was the fourth tournament she had won in a row.
Tennis is not designed to encourage long winning streaks. You win a set and come back to 0-0 to start the next one. You win one tournament, 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 major tournament now. Martina Navratilova won 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’s fair to say that it was a different time.
Świątek’s streak began in late February, in Doha, where she edged Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in the final, 6–2, 6–0. It continued in 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 the fourth woman to do so. She left Miami ranked No. 1 in the world, dropping from No. 2 with the sudden retirement of Australian Ash Barty. Then, moving from hard courts to clay, she won in Stuttgart, which took her winning streak to twenty-three. She chose to skip the Madrid Open to rest. She extended her run to five titles and 28 matches in the Italian Open final in Rome last Sunday, beating Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur – who, on her best days, is the trickiest of the women’s soccer -6–2, 6–2. There, Świątek gave a glimpse of the pressure needed to keep a winning streak alive: after earning a 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 biggest clay-court event, the French Open, is about to begin on Sunday. It couldn’t be clearer that Świątek has earned her No. 1 ranking. She can undo anyone – and somehow.
Świątek has already won the French Open – in 2020, when it was held not in late spring but in the first days of autumn, in a covid– induced restructuring of the tennis calendar. At the time, Iga Świątek was virtually unknown to casual fans: a nineteen-year-old Polish girl, ranked outside the top fifty, without a single WTA title to her name. She won on the famous clay not by grinding and shoving her way through the draw, but by whipping and pounding: she didn’t drop a set and lost only twenty-eight matches in all. In the fourth round, she defeated Simona Halep, one of the best clay-court players of the day, then the No. 2 woman in the world, 6–1, 6–2. She won her last set, the second in the final, against American Sofia Kenin, 6-1, and it was more lopsided than the score line would indicate.
It’s never easy for a teenage Grand Slam sensation to adjust to life on tour after winning a big tournament. The weekly travel-training-competition-travel regimen, pain and strain, media distractions and sponsorship obligations can wear down a player. (See Emma Raducanu, who, after a superb championship run at the US Open late last summer, made two coaching changes and lost in the first or second round of several tournaments.) Yet the Last year, Świątek steadily rose through the rankings – she finished the season at No. 9 – using the tools that made her towering the previous fall. She’s fast, she has the stamina of a distance runner, and her balance is superb (she’s worked to improve it by hitting tennis balls while floating on a paddle board). She brushes her forehand with more topspin than any other player in women’s football and hits hard too, like her hero, Rafael Nadal. She can knock opponents away with her topspin forehand, then confuse them with her ability to change the direction of incoming balls. Throughout the year, she carefully built points in rallies, waiting to open up enough space on the pitch before throwing a ball in preparation for finishing the point. She had, in essence, a beautiful game on clay. (It was never better displayed than a year ago in Rome, when, in just forty-six breathtaking minutes, she won the Italian Open final, crushing Czech 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 ways with her longtime coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, and brought in another Pole, Tomasz Wiktorowski, who had coached Agnieska Radwańska, a Polish tennis star from the early twenties. . Soon, as this season started on hard courts in Australia, there were glimpses of a new Iga. She took the ball earlier, on the short climb. She was hitting fewer rally balls in the middle of the field and looking to finish points faster by looking for the corners with big shots from each wing. And she has started her service returns successfully: this season so far, she has won more than half of her return matches, a remarkable number, with no other women’s top 10 player even close. Świątek has embraced fast-hitting attacking tennis – not on every point, but on many, many points, and especially in high-pressure moments, when you least expect it.
“Before, really, I didn’t want to take that risk, because I didn’t want to be that kind of player, who’s just going to shoot the balls and we’ll see if it’s going to be in or out,” she said. earlier this year. “I always wanted to be solid and the kind of player on clay that will topspin and stay behind. But, she went on to say, “Players who attack and lead win. I also wanted to learn how to do that.
There’s an opening in Świątek – when it comes to her tennis journey, anyway – that’s as winning as the game she’s bringing to the court right now. She travels with a sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, and was candid and thoughtful about the mental toll tennis can take. She talks about professional tennis as a kind of team sport, in which she plays a part – trying to win matches – and the people she works with play other roles that are also crucial for success. Her commitment to tennis has not afflicted her with tunnel vision; like the great women of tennis before her, and like Osaka and others at that time, she didn’t stick to the sport. She was quick to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February. (She wears her convictions on the court: in Rome last week, a ribbon in the colors of the Ukrainian flag was affixed to her hat, 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 involve more than being the player with the most ranking points. In women’s tennis, that matters in the locker room. Marta Kostyuk, a young Ukrainian player who called on 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 stance that Świątek neither endorsed nor denounced – recently had this to say, “Much respect to Iga. The way she plays, thinks, talks, it’s great to have someone on top like her. . . . I think it’s great when someone like him is in power.