The Successor

“There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player.” — Brad Gilbert to Andre Agassi, Open

***

Iga Świątek’s five times in 2020 might have all happened in the same two weeks. At Roland-Garros in that year, Świątek stormed the field. Simona Halep was the favorite for the title. Świątek thrashed her in the fourth round for the loss of three games. Then just 19 years old, she won the title without dropping a set. She lost 28 games in total — essentially averaging a 6-2, 6-2 beatdown per round. It was a redlined fortnight of stunning proportions. 

Since that tournament, Świątek has been very successful. She followed up her title by making the fourth round at all three other majors in the next year. She has climbed to #9 in the world. She will be higher after this tournament. 

Świątek has also come back to Earth after her supreme Roland-Garros campaign in 2020. There’s less than zero shame in this — even the very best players have struggled to immediately consolidate their success at the highest level. After watching Świątek dismiss challengers as easily as Novak Djokovic and then Tennis Australia dismissed competence, there was a sense of surprise when she started to lose, even to top players. Her peak level wasn’t the problem — it was still sky-high — but reaching it all the time was proving difficult; other players had stronger B games. 

It was easy to forget that Świątek was still so young as she continued to exhibit consistency at the majors. She had shown she was ready, so a regression from that peak felt disappointing. In reality, the standards were too high. Besides Naomi Osaka, a player hasn’t broken the ice by winning consecutive majors in ages. Medvedev might do it this tournament, but he’s 25 and fully developed, used to the grind of the tour. 

A reality on tour is that players are at their best very infrequently. Tennis is such a volatile sport; with so much depending on the opponent and a set of constantly shifting court speeds and conditions, it’s no wonder something goes wrong in nearly every match. The best players get upset so rarely not because they overpower inferior players with top performances time and again, but because they are experts at managing days when they can’t produce a top performance. 

In the Australian Open quarterfinals against the perennially dangerous Kaia Kanepi, Świątek was definitely not having a top performance. She saved an astonishing eight set points before losing the first set, but was always playing from behind after missing a few early break points. In the second, she forged a 4-1 lead, trying to produce some momentum, but Kanepi fought back to 4-4 as Świątek continued to misfire. The 20-year-old was frustrated — she wasn’t playing well, she knew it, and time was running out in a big match. 

When Świątek double faulted for love-15 at 4-4, an implosion looked possible, but she gathered herself to take care of her serve, reaching a tiebreak. Once there, she accelerated, landing a forehand return winner on the baseline to grab a mini-break and immediately after winning one of the most draining rallies of the match to take a decisive 5-2 lead. 

It’s impossible to play well all the time. Tennis matches have peaks and valleys, even the most lopsided of blowouts. Agassi wrote that he felt Pete Sampras could play poorly for 38 minutes, then well for one and end up winning the set. And doesn’t that sound more repeatable than peaking for a sustained period, playing your best for a minute instead of all the time? A player’s floor is often more relevant than their ceiling. 

Świątek’s floor is rising. After winning the second set tiebreak, she went up an early break on Kanepi in the decider. Her ballstriking became more assertive. She broke a second time with a fierce inside-out forehand/crosscourt backhand combination. 

When serving for the match, Świątek played an extremely loose game and was broken to 15. She rebounded immediately, though, forcing her way to match point in Kanepi’s 3-5 service game. 

Kanepi landed a huge serve and immediately went on the attack, hitting to the open court. Świątek threw herself into shrieking slides, putting everything into the rally — if you win match point, you don’t have to play anymore, so you might as well exhaust yourself. Świątek returned a pair of forehands Kanepi hit from on top of the net, plus an overhead smash with a leaping, twisting stab. She finally got back a low forehand slice (and had put pressure on Kanepi to hit a perfect shot with her previous mindblowing gets) that caused Kanepi to miss a backhand. 

Świątek celebrated exuberantly. She had largely played a poor match — like Rafael Nadal the night before, she hit a career-high 11 double faults — and had won anyway. On a day when her best level was as elusive as a good Denis Shapovalov return of serve, she had managed to find it in the biggest moments. 

Świątek will play a very winnable semifinal against Danielle Collins. Ash Barty may well be her final opponent should she get that far. That match looks daunting; Barty has had Świątek’s number, even on clay. Still, this tournament has already been a big success for the 20-year-old. She has strung together consecutive wins from a set down, previously a struggle for her. She is steepening her arc of improvement, raising her floor steadily. 

Iga Świątek is one of the successors of the WTA. Her consistency already sets her apart, and the more she can win on her poor days, the fewer places her opponents will have to hide. 

Relief At Last: A topsy-turvy battle of wills sees Iga Świątek come out as a winner in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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