Iga Świątek’s Journey to the Top

By Juan Ignacio Astaburuaga

Since her time as a junior, Iga Świątek was billed as one of the most promising talents of the future of women’s tennis. Her results spoke for themselves. She needed just one full year of playing ITF level tournaments until she was able to establish herself on the WTA Tour.

After having won three professional events as a 15-year-old, Świątek suffered an ankle injury in June 2017 that forced her to stop playing for the next 8 months. But when she came back in February 2018, and had to practically start all over again, it seemed like nothing had happened. Świątek won four ITF titles, reached the semis at Roland-Garros juniors (she also won the doubles title) and was crowned as the Wimbledon junior champion. She finished her season relatively early, in September, but was already ranked inside the top 200, having secured an entry for the Australian Open qualifying rounds for the following year.

In January 2019, Świątek played her first ever WTA level tournament, in Auckland, and never went back to the ITFs. At 17, she had already won a match at a Grand Slam event and reached a final at a WTA 250 event (it is still the only one she’s ever lost in her career; her current record in finals is 16-1). Then she had remarkable runs at Roland-Garros (reaching the fourth round), in Toronto (beating former world number one Caroline Wozniacki before losing to Naomi Osaka in two tight sets), and at the Australian Open in 2020, (reaching the fourth round again).

Although the results were there, her image never gathered as much media attention as she deserved. Just two times in her career did she receive a wildcard for events outside of Poland, and none were at WTA level, which is utterly surprising considering she was a junior Grand Slam champion already settled inside the top 200. Iga herself has said that in the wider picture, this ended up being for the best, as she was always aware of the full path she had to walk to get where she wanted to be and where she is right now, and that no one gifted her anything.

A foot injury after the 2019 U.S. Open that sent her off for four months, plus the four-month pandemic break in 2020, meant that when the tour resumed in August of that year, Świątek had only played eight tour level matches in the last year.

*****

I had already heard about Świątek for her run at the Australian Open, but never got to watch her play until the 3rd round of the 2020 U.S. Open, when she took on Victoria Azarenka. And even though a 6-4 6-2 loss sounds pretty one-sided, the reality could not have been more different. Vika had some gracious words for Iga during press, acknowledging her skills and predicting a promising future for her. She surely did not expect those predictions to become a reality just one month later, when the 19-year-old, then ranked outside the top 50, dropped just 28 games in seven matches to win Roland Garros.

It was a breakthrough of the highest order. How to live up to the expectations the following year was always going to be the biggest challenge. For some, Świątek was just going to be another member of the one-slam-wonder club, players who were never able to sustain or even come close to the level that brought them a first major title. But some others felt that a new young force was at the top of the game. Her 2021 season was definitely closer to proving the latter impression correct. She reached a career-high ranking of #4, was the most consistent player on tour in big events, being the only woman to reach the fourth round at all four majors, she won her first WTA 1000 title in Rome, with a double bagel final included (a moment of sympathy for Karolina Plíšková), and her first hard court title in just the third event of the year she played, dispelling the notion that she was just a clay court player. On top of that, she qualified for the WTA Finals, finishing inside the top 10 in just her very first full season on tour.

Expecting her to repeat her performance from her Roland-Garros title in 2020 seemed to me a naïve expectation. She did have some disappointing results and heartbreaking losses (which is almost inevitable at this stage of her career, or anyone’s, to be honest), such as losing in the quarterfinals in Paris as a defending champion, and in the second round at the Tokyo Olympics, which gave us one of the most desolating images of the year, as she did not leave the court after her match finished and stayed there crying for more than 5 minutes. That’s how much it meant for her. Maybe too much.

But establishing herself as a consistent top ranked player was the real goal for the season, and she could not have been prouder of herself for what she accomplished in that sense. That is why the criticism Świątek received despite all the milestones she reached was nothing but unfair. I’d even dare to say it was a demonstration of ignorance.

At the start of the 2022 season, the goal was probably the same in terms of consistency, but maybe going one step further, especially on hard courts, and looking to clinch a couple more big results. The surprising split with her coach from the last six years to join forces with Tomasz Wiktorowski aimed in the direction of wanting to take a big step. And just in the first two events played in Australia, there were some notorious improvements in the way she was approaching these matches.

Although she didn’t defend her title in Adelaide, a loss to Ash Barty, then the world number one, was forgivable. And then at the first Grand Slam of the year, came the two matches that probably changed the entire perspective she had of her own game and mentality. Having to come back from a set down in back-to-back matches in the fourth round against Cîrstea and in the quarterfinal against Kanepi — something she had done only three times in the entire previous year — worked as a shot of confidence for herself, showing that she did not need to be at her best to win a tennis match.

Talk about a match point!

She then lost two of her next three matches, falling to Collins and Ostapenko, who exposed some weaknesses of her game, especially her second serve. It would’ve been absolutely unrealistic to predict that, after February 16th when Świątek had just lost a third set tiebreak to Ostapenko, that she was simply not going to lose another tennis match for the next four months. Doha ended up being the turning point. In what was probably her best ever performances on hard courts, she defeated Sabalenka, Sákkari (against whom she had a previous combined record of 0-4) and Kontaveit.

Her confidence on her own shots, changing her mindset for a much more aggressive style, plus an elite level on the return of serve, made her become a much more versatile player throughout different surfaces. What has come since then is pretty well known (she just won her next 30 matches and next five tournaments). That’s why I want to focus on the mental challenge this has been for her.

We have kind of overlooked what it means that she won her second Roland-Garros title last week. As she was already the biggest favorite to win it, this was just the expected outcome, the most obvious result, right? But how many have failed from that position in the recent past? Approaching a Grand Slam knowing that anything outcome different from getting the trophy will be seen as a disappointment is probably one of the most challenging positions in the sport.

A well-deserved trophy. Screenshot: Reuters

Now, for the future, Iga Świątek has created an even bigger set of expectations for herself. The bar she’s set for her level is so high (Roland-Garros for the clay and Doha and Miami this year for hard courts) that people are already focusing more on the times in which she’s not demolishing her opponents than on the fact that she’s just winning the matches she’s supposed to win. The 4th round match at Roland-Garros against the talented 19-year-old Zheng Qinwen, for instance, was a really tough battle. It was the only match in which Świątek lost a set. And despite actually being able to make the comeback in two great final sets, the comments were already about the vulnerability shown and about losing a set ―as if that’s not something normal in this sport for anyone.

Unlike in 2020, she did lose more than 28 games and did drop a set. But considering the abysmal differences in the expectations and pressure she was facing, this last title is far more impressive and worthy of praise. When everything different from winning means you’ve failed, this kind of mental performance, actually living up to an outrageously high bar that you have set for yourself, is absolutely extraordinary.

The way in which she’s embraced her new position at the top of the women’s game these last two months, as no one else has in the last six years, indicates to me that Iga Świątek could stay there for quite a while.

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