By Oscar Wood
Throughout her rise to the top of the sport in the last three years, there have perhaps been two elements of Iga Świątek’s game that have stood out. Things that have separated her from the rest of the field.
The first is her movement. Her natural rapid foot speed is bolstered with brilliant anticipation skills. This was best showcased in last year’s Rome final, where Ons Jabeur hit multiple drop shots that would’ve been effective shots against the majority of the WTA field, only to see Świątek react early and chase them down for easy winners.
Then there’s the sliding. Her ability to slide into shots allows her not only to reach shots others can’t, but to do more with them — her open stance backhand on the slide is Djokovician — and to recover her court position for the next ball more quickly.
The second differentiator between Świątek and the field is the spin she hits with. While women’s tennis has had players whose average ground strokes can match the speed of many top male players for decades now, it has usually come at the compromise of spin generation. Świątek is one of the first on the WTA who can rival ATP players for heaviness: the combination of speed and topspin that determines how any given shot feels on the opponent’s racket at the point of contact. Such spin generation has two benefits. The weight of shot impacts the ability of the opponent to return and redirect shots in a similar way to how speed does; the heavier the shot, the harder the return. And the loop caused by the Magnus effect allows for more net clearance on shots hit with heavy topspin, allowing for a higher margin of error than flatter shots hit at the same speed.
It is this spin generation that has made Świątek essentially “upset proof,” at least on tennis’ two most prominent surfaces. The margin for error on her aggressive ground strokes means her attacking game is the most reliable on tour. Any player who can’t match or surpass her own considerable firepower and put her on the back-foot is left hoping for a bad day that won’t come. Świątek lost just a combined eight times on clay and hard courts last season, and while the list of names to beat her isn’t exclusively the game’s best players, it does include the sport’s most aggressive and powerful hitters. Players who could prevent her playing on her own terms.
While this spin attack has been prevalent on the ATP since at least the days of Björn Borg, it is less common on the WTA Tour, where flat hitting has ruled since the power hitting revolution of the 1990s. Of course, there have always been dominant women that were known for their power hitting. In the 1920s and 30s, Helen Wills was considered the most powerful women’s baseliner ever, and she carried that power to 19 major singles titles. In the 1940s, sportswriters described Alice Marble as ‘playing like a man’ because of her heavy serve and forehand. It arguably wasn’t until the arrival of Monica Seles, however, that women’s tennis became known as a world of flat, power hitters.
Seles, hitting both her forehands and backhands with two hands, dominated the early 1990s with Steffi Graf until her stabbing in 1993. She was followed by the likes of Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, Amelie Mauresmo, Petra Kvitová and more recently Naomi Osaka. At the moment, the torch is being carried by the likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Garcia, Liudmila Samsonova and Madison Keys. While these players have their differences, they all share at least two of the following three things; powerful, flat groundstrokes, a big serve, and an aggressive first strike game.
While Świątek is herself a powerful player, her brand of aggression is built much more around rhythm and point construction, compared to the first strike tennis of the aforementioned names. Unlike many of the true power hitters, she doesn’t have a big serve that will constantly allow her to start points on the front foot, and she’s less willing to hit low percentage winners from neutral or defensive positions.
In the context of recent WTA history, this group of first-strike players can be seen as reflecting the heritage of women’s tennis, while Świątek could be viewed as its potential evolution. What makes this truly interesting, however, is that those flat hitters also represent the biggest challenge Świątek can face at the moment, almost like the history of women’s tennis is reluctant to give way to its future. As we’ve established, no one compares to Iga when it comes to high margin aggression built around top spin, and that quality makes it extremely difficult for counter punchers to live with her game. Which means this group of power hitters is essentially the only one that can reliably challenge her.
Any player who plays at the limits of power and aggression has the ability to, as the cliché goes, take the racket out of their opponent’s hand. But for Świątek it possesses specific match up issues. Because her serve isn’t an area of strength, she will always be prone to a poor service game or an aggressive player catching fire on a few consecutive returns. As a result, dominant servers like Rybakina, Garcia and Samsonova, who are difficult to break even for a returner as good as Świątek, will always pose a potential problem. And because her offensive game is reliant on building her way into points, she can struggle to truly implement her game against the most aggressive players — if you’re never given the opportunity to wind up for a huge groundstroke, you won’t end up bossing many rallies.
For most of the 2022 season, of course, it seemed clear that this was a battle Świątek could clearly win. Her high margin aggression had proven to be superior to the more streaky power of her rivals, even if they could occasionally beat her on their day (Ostapenko in Dubai and Garcia in Warsaw) or be the biggest test for her during her winning streaks (Samsonova in Stuttgart).
But something happened during Świątek’s loss to Sabalenka at the WTA Finals. Then at the Australian Open she lost to Rybakina, who was vanquished in the final by Sabalenka. Now the last four slams have been split between the spin game of Świątek and the flat hitting of Rybakina and Sabalenka. Suddenly, what was beginning to look like a clear new world for the WTA has gotten murkier again. Clearly there is still a story, and a rivalry of styles, to be told.
In many ways, what happened in Australia was the ideal result for the WTA. The dominant number one was stopped by a player only two years her senior, and someone who looks ready to regularly contend for the biggest titles. The title winner, meanwhile, had recently rediscovered her best game, and overcame past heartbreak and trauma to achieve the biggest breakthrough a tennis player can have.
As a result, it’s reasonable to assume both Sabalenka and Rybakina, particularly the former, have what it takes to maintain the challenge long term. While Świątek’s position atop the rankings is still undisputed, it’s not ridiculous to think that the level of play Sabalenka has achieved this season could be the best in the game, and therefore capable of knocking the Pole off her perch if sustained.
Should such a battle for the top spot arise, the battle between Sabalenka and Świątek could be one for the ages. With both representing the best their genre of tennis has to offer at the moment, it could be seen as something of a battle for stylistic supremacy, a fight for the long-term future of the women’s game. Which will win out; the prominent style of the last three decades, or the potential new era?
Most signs still point in favour of Iga. Her dominant title run in Doha was a reminder of her unique brilliance. As alluded to earlier, her movement is an equally important asset she has over her competition. While most of her rivals have a bigger serve, they can’t scramble behind the baseline the way she can. That gives her the potential to also win while being the more defensive player in a match up, and by definition these opponents play a lower margin game that is more likely to fail on any given day. She also has already proven she can sustain championship-winning tennis for multiple tournaments in a row and avoid early round exits to an extent none of her rivals have been able to. It’s possible that even in a world where she struggles in specific matchups, that those players don’t reach the final rounds regularly enough to inhibit her dominance. Plus, Świątek is still just 21, and with a ruthless competitive spirit and a desire to improve, she still has a lot of room to grow, most notably in her serve and ability in the forecourt.
But most importantly the challenge has been raised. For much of last year she had no true rival. While the likes of Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula did well to put themselves in positions to play her multiple times in latter stages, it was always clear they lacked the firepower to test her unless she was considerably below her best. On the basis of the last four months, Świątek’s 2023 could be far less straightforward.
Whatever the outcome, it will be fun to see it unfold.