The Next Phase for Iga Świątek

Iga Świątek, world number one and three-time major champion, is out of the Australian Open. And the way she went down, to a storm of brilliance from Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, was of little fault of her own. Sure, you can point to her first serve not doing enough damage (which I’ll get into), but this was Rybakina’s day. She was always going to be a thorny obstacle for a top seed this tournament — if Wimbledon had granted points last year, she’d have been a top seed herself — it was just Świątek’s misfortune that Rybakina ended up in her path.

The game plan against Świątek might not be easy, but it is clear. You can’t match her defense or high-margin aggression, so you have to take chances and try to blast through her with risky winners, starting with the return of serve. Naturally, this puts a lot of pressure on your power shots: Knowing how incredibly precise you have to be makes it that much more difficult to hit those tiny targets. Rybakina, though, seemed impervious to the pressure. She clubbed a pair of return winners in the very first game, breaking after Świątek had grabbed a 40-love lead. Though the world number one eventually broke back, that set the tone — Rybakina’s power would be the decisive factor in the match.

Świątek certainly had her chances, most notably a 3-0 lead in the second set, but she was never exactly in control of the match. At 3-1, she made four first serves — and lost four points. Świątek’s first serve is her primary (and really only) weakness at this point. She’s capable of good spot serving but, maybe buoyed by the knowledge that her ground game is enough to beat most players without the help of a great serve, seems to just want to get the point started much of the time. It’s understandable. Why take unnecessary risk when you can win safely? Against a firing Rybakina, though, it wasn’t possible for Świątek to win with so much margin for error in her game. Świątek won 57% of her first serve points; Rybakina won 80%. The world number one netted a short forehand, the kind of shot she hits for a winner in her sleep, to drop serve at 4-all in the second set. Rybakina served the match out to love moments later.

Though Świątek is the world number one, and a dominant tour-leader at that, this result…doesn’t change things at the Australian Open all that much. She was the tournament favorite, yes. But when she lost to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros in 2021, the draw was thrown into chaos. Literally anyone could win after that, we said. Here, the vibe is different. Jessica Pegula is the world number three, crushed Świątek pre-Australian Open, and is yet to drop a set. Aryna Sabalenka, power player extraordinaire, has been scarily accurate so far. Fourth-seeded Caroline Garcia is in-form and has survived a couple fierce tests. Rybakina is certainly a contender after this performance. You have Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion of the event, who just survived a tight match against Zhu Lin to reach the last eight. Jelena Ostapenko and her titanic bullwhip groundstrokes (from which no one is safe) are into the quarterfinals as well. In a tournament that hasn’t featured too many magical matches just yet, I can’t wait for everyone to start scything each other down in the later rounds.

*****

Much of the talk heading into this young season was whether or not anyone could be a meaningful rival to Świątek after her dominant 2022. Maybe that was the wrong question. It is incredibly hard gatekeep a spot at the pinnacle of the tennis tour. Take Novak Djokovic’s 2011 season, one of the very most dominant in the Open Era. He won 41 straight matches that season as well as three of the four majors. He demolished all his rivals. But in 2012, he started losing to the other members of the Big Four, seemingly all at once — it wasn’t any individual one of them that did the damage.

Świątek has been directly in the spotlight for almost a year now, and during that time, her peers have been studying her for weaknesses. It’s just the nature of tennis. Players get sick of losing to the same player over and over, so they figure out tactical angles to prevent it from happening again. Świątek’s potentially vulnerable first serve is no secret; gone are the days of the 37-match winning streak when the query of how to beat her was greeted with a giant question mark. During most of that stretch, each part of Świątek’s game was operating on such an outrageously high level that her serve became too small a weakness to be relevant. But now, whether it’s because the rest of her game has inevitably regressed to the (still extremely impressive) mean or because players are being more proactive in attacking her serve, Świątek is a little more vulnerable.

I’m not trying to write a eulogy for Świątek’s time at number one (there is sure to be more of it) here, but it’s worth mentioning how unstable the ground at the mountaintop is. Whether the pressure or the chase pack or injuries end up getting to you, you’re coming down eventually. Daniil Medvedev lasted all of three weeks as world number one on the ATP before getting displaced.

My point is this: Świątek’s (first?) phase of utter dominance is probably over. And it’s not that the loss to Rybakina marked the ending, but heading into a new season, using it as the lens through which to view Świątek’s future reign could be instructive. The way Rybakina beat the world number one — huge returns, crushing groundstrokes — will be difficult to reproduce. But even before Rybakina’s win, other players put forth the blueprint. There was the Sabalenka win over Świątek at the WTA Finals, the Pegula win over the world number one at the United Cup. More players will blast away at Świątek’s serve, and by the law of averages alone, some are going to execute successfully enough to succeed.

The next step for Świątek is to climb yet another peak that no one else can reach. Improving her first serve will both set up her forehand for easier putaways and make her more difficult to attack, and if that happens the road to beating her will become shrouded in fog again. It’s unfair, really, that the best player in the world should be forced to improve, but that’s where Świątek has found herself. Tennis never stops, even for those who rule it.

Świątek is hardly in trouble. Sure, she’s defending the points from her six big titles, but it was never a question that other players would pick up at least a couple of those titles in 2023. Clay isn’t too far away, where Świątek is more dominant than she is on hard court; her biting forehand and stifling movement are further enhanced on the dirt. And I’m confident she will win the Australian Open in the future — it’s not like this loss carries a sense of foreboding for her future in Melbourne. Świątek is still only 21! But if we were wondering which players could even pose a challenge to the world number one in 2023, we already have some answers.

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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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