It’s Not a Magic Wand, Part 5

World number one Iga Świątek has won 34 matches in a row, an astonishing streak that includes title wins on hard courts and clay. She won the Sunshine Double. When she’s near her best, she demolishes opponents — she tends to only lose five or six games per match — and when she isn’t, she outplays them on the big points. She is the most dominant, in-form player on both tours. She has been for some time. Yet it sometimes feels like her dominance is more counted on than appreciated, that as many people are wondering when she will lose as are praising her wins.

A notable line from David Foster Wallace’s famous 2006 essay on Federer is “Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer.” News is in a similar position when it comes to Świątek. She might even be more difficult to write about at the moment, since she doesn’t have the obvious foil and rival that Federer did. (Her last loss, way back in mid-February, was to the dangerous yet inconsistent Jelena Ostapenko.) Świątek’s game is a sight to behold — her topspin groundstrokes are heavy and pacy, her movement and sliding skills are phenomenal — but a writer can hardly describe those qualities in every piece. Midway through this tournament, her form took a sharp dip, but she still didn’t come anywhere close to losing. It was just confirmation of what we already knew about Świątek: she is the best in the world by a country mile.

Świątek is reaching rarely-seen levels of supremacy. I watched her beat Daria Kasatkina from the corner of court Philippe-Chatrier today. Kasatkina had been having a great tournament, and she kept pace with Świątek for a bit, but once Świątek clicked into gear, Kasatkina could barely win points. The shift was palpable — Świątek stopped making errors at around 2-all in the first set. Once that happened, all the pressure was on Kasatkina, whose shots were less powerful but also less consistent. At one stage, her forehand trailed Świątek’s 4-9 in winners and had seven unforced errors to Świątek’s one. The overall point spread for the match was 59-29, which is about as lopsided as it gets. People on Twitter were critiquing Kasatkina’s errors — she missed a smash at 2-3, 15-30 in the first set — but to me, it seemed like she was overmatched with no path to success. Even an error-free performance would have resulted in a straight-set loss, just a slightly closer one.

Many tennis players are reluctant to reveal anything to the press, but Świątek has been open and personable. She does columns on BBC Sport where she talks freely about everything from her tennis to growing up. She wants you to know that she likes books. Gone With the Wind made her cry, Murder on the Orient Express did not. She is a big Rafa fan, which the press won’t stop asking her about. She doesn’t seem to mind. Anyone ranked #1 in the world deserves it, but Świątek is an ideal player for tennis to have at the top. She’s friendly, watchable, popular. A fan of hers has a Twitter account dedicated to posting her out-of-context moments (@SwiatekOOC). It has nearly 12,000 followers, despite, at the user’s admission, containing “traces of context.”

Roland-Garros is important for Świątek. In the eyes of many casual fans and even some pundits, her winning streak will lose some of its shine if she doesn’t win the Parisian major. This is unfair — she’s won 34 straight matches now, and the pressure is only going up — but also has some logic to it. In 1995, Andre Agassi tore through the North American summer hard courts with the goal of avenging a Wimbledon loss to Boris Becker at the U.S. Open. Agassi won four tournaments in a row, then beat Becker in the Open semifinals, but he lost to Pete Sampras in the final, which snapped a 26-match winning streak. “I’m 26-1,” he told the press according to his autobiography Open, “and I’d trade all those wins for this one.” There is no denying that majors are, well, major.

Świątek is a heavy favorite to beat Coco Gauff in Saturday’s final. I watched Gauff’s semifinal as well, and while she is a fantastic player, Świątek is simply on another plane. I’m not sure there’s anything Gauff does better. She may well get there in the future, but right now, Świątek’s shots have a little bit more heft, her slides a little bit more length. Even with her dip in form, there has been less uncertainty surrounding Świątek than Nadal this tournament, and Nadal has won the event four of the last five years.

It’s become hard not to take Świątek for granted. Her dominance has been so total that when I watch her, my mind sometimes assumes she will win this tournament and leaps ahead to project how she will do on grass. What will end her streak, a great performance from an opponent or a dip in form or motivation on her part? How many majors can she win? Who else on tour can challenge her? Considering her omnipresent winningness, wondering what will interrupt her rampage is almost as easy as appreciating her results. I think winning streaks are more revered in hindsight; as much as tennis fans bemoan a lack of consistency, many of us are drawn to chaos. People want at least a little bit of unpredictability, and Świątek is starving the tour of it.

All of this is to say that Świątek is not getting the hype she deserves, and what hype she is getting seems very conducive to pressure. Carlos Alcaraz, I think, got a bigger buzz despite winning less. Aside from the wins and titles and prize money (no big deal), when I wonder what it would be like to be in Świątek’s shoes, I don’t love what I see. My job would be to win every single match. Even some of my straight-set wins would cause some murmuring, because hardcore fans or journalists decided I wasn’t at my best, that 6-3, 6-4 wasn’t good enough. To some people, my entire winning streak — Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart, Rome — would take a backseat if I lost at Roland-Garros.

I would argue that Świątek’s biggest asset right now is the fact that none of this seems to bother her. She is, by all appearances, a stone-cold killer on-court and a happy-go-lucky person off it. At the start of the tournament, she was able to joke with Ons Jabeur — who had pushed her in Rome (relatively speaking, of course. Świątek beat her 6-2, 6-2) and was billed by many to meet her in the final of Roland-Garros before she was upset in the opening round — that Jabeur could beat her by slipping something in her water bottle.

Świątek said after her semifinal win that going into the tournament, she felt her winning streak could end soon, so she didn’t set any specific goals. It’s the perfect way to offset the rising demands from fans and pundits — by taking things match by match, she could see each win as an accomplishment rather than a mere fulfillment of an expectation.

All of this makes no sense to me (but then, very little about professional tennis does), as a mere fan of this sport and not a conqueror of it. Maybe Świątek is numb to expectations having been the favorite at Roland-Garros last year as well and feeling the disappointment of not winning the title. Maybe her work with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz gives her a unique advantage. Maybe she’s just really good at living in the moment. Whatever the case, Świątek is absolutely acing every test she faces. Her opponents can’t knock her off course, and neither can the expectation that she win every match she plays. She doesn’t need our help.

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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