Iga Świątek: Frontrunner or Fighter?

By Nick Carter

After that magnificent Madrid Open final between Iga Świątek and Aryna Sabalenka, some are hoping that this is a milestone moment in women’s tennis.

And it is – to an extent. Given that we’ve had two close, high quality finals at the top level of the WTA Tour in 2023 (Australia and Madrid), the game is moving into a healthy position where the entertainment value for most sports fans has gone up. However, some are taking this as a sign (or hope in some cases) that the era of Świątek dominance is already over.

There are also some issues with this stance. Arguably, Świątek has not shown signs of dominance since the start of 2023. Aryna Sabalenka has made clear improvements in her game and is a winning machine right now, whilst Elena Rybakina has made 3 of the 4 big hard-court finals so far this year. Barbora Krejčíková has also shown that when she can put it all together, she is a definite contender.

However, though Świątek may not be the clear top player on tour any more, she still is on clay. Every loss she’s suffered in the last 12 months on the dirt has been in three-set matches against elite players at their best (Sabalenka in Madrid, Caroline Garcia in Warsaw). In addition, we know that the conditions in Madrid are very different to other clay events, with the quicker court and thin air benefiting Sabalenka’s raw power shots more than Świątek’s high-margin spin barrage. It is likely that the result of the Madrid final would have been reversed on more traditional clay such as in Rome or Paris. 

The second week of Madrid was an opportunity to reflect on perceptions of Świątek and how she handles being challenged, especially after the battle she had with Ekaterina Alexandrova in the fourth round. Świątek is the best front runner in the sport right now. If she takes control of a match, she rarely loses her grip on it – her ability to maintain control of a match even when not at her best is astonishing. The finals she played against Ons Jabeur in Rome and at the U.S. Open in 2022 showed she could deal with a very skilled opponent coming back at her. Since the beginning of 2022 Świątek has only lost two matches from a set up: against Jelena Ostapenko in Dubai last year and against Krejčíková in that memorable Ostrava final. In addition, both opponents had to be at their absolute peak to do it. 

Despite the loss, Świątek hounded Krejčíková until the very end of this match, saving multiple pinch-me match points. Krejčíková needing an ace to close out the final felt fitting.

However, Świątek’s frontrunning abilities can mean that during matches where she doesn’t take control initially, even including situations where she has to scrap out the first set, she looks frustrated. This is understandable – if you get used to winning and you know what you can produce, it’s possible to be more annoyed when things don’t flow as smoothly as you feel they should. Of the 14 times Świątek has lost a match since the beginning of 2022, eight were in straight sets, and half of those straight set losses have been in 2023 alone. It’s possible, then, that Świątek capitulates when unable to gain control. This may be contributing to her recent struggles with her rivals at the top of the rankings. 

However, there are also stats more favourable to Świątek’s fighting abilities. Before 2022, Świątek’s record in deciding sets was ropey (on the main WTA Tour). From 2019 to 2021 her win-loss record in deciding sets was 13-10. In 2022, this improved massively to 16-5. She is currently 2-1 in deciding sets this year (18-6 across both seasons). Of those 18 wins, 11 have been from a set down. Now, if you combine 2022 and 2023, Świątek has lost 12 matches after losing the first set but an almost 50% record of coming back is still better than most on tour. And, if she comes back and takes it to a third set her record is still 11-4 (including the Madrid loss). 

Furthermore, of the 4 straight set losses she’s suffered in 2023 (if we only want to look at recent data), there have been mitigating factors for all of them. Three were due to issues with recovery, illness or injury and one was due partly to an opponent playing just too well (the Rybakina loss in Melbourne). The Madrid final was more of an indicator of how hard it normally is to beat Świątek and the level Sabalenka had to produce was stunning and made for some epic tennis. 

In terms of emotional management, Świątek could be better at not showing her frustration as often. However, this is not only very difficult but also an unreasonable expectation. Even Serena Williams regularly displayed stress or frustration during difficult matches, and she usually came through to win them. Yes, Rybakina’s ice cool on-court attitude makes her a total boss but she is one of very few who can pull it off, and even then she lets the façade crack at points. Players showing emotion in the heat of battle is one of the central qualities that makes tennis relatable for a lot of fans. 

Throughout tennis history, whenever someone has broken away from the pack, a rival has always stepped up to challenge them. Billie-Jean King became the main challenger to Margaret Court. Martina Navratilova mastered her fitness and raised her game to build perhaps the greatest rivalry ever with Chris Evert. Monica Seles rose above Steffi Graf within two years of the German establishing her dominance in the game. Martina Hingis was quickly eclipsed by the power games of Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. When Serena herself moved ahead, Venus and Justine Henin kept her honest whilst Maria Sharapova became a star alongside (in terms of popularity even if Serena dominated the rivalry) the younger Williams sister, and Victoria Azarenka gave Serena some fantastic battles during 2012 and 2013. Iga Świątek is no exception, as Sabalenka is proving so far. It would appear that the Pole was expecting a challenge though, and that is also the key to maintaining one’s place at the top.


Iga Świątek has a lot of strengths. Her forehand, her return of serve, her movement and her brilliant frontrunning abilities have been praised for a while and rightfully so. However, it has meant that observers can underrate her (if that is possible, given her prominence at the top of the game) in other areas. Her backhand is a weapon that is not talked about enough, and always has been throughout her career. She has always been able to get some free points on her first serve but has recently upped the ante. Likewise, her match management in tight situations has quietly gotten better through her career; she is becoming increasingly reluctant to rule herself out. Even when she falls behind, she usually wins. Like all great players (and by winning 3 majors, reaching world number one, and achieving that winning streak in 2022 she is already on the select list of all-time-greats) you can never count her out. 

Świątek’s performance in the Madrid final, though it wasn’t enough for a win, highlighted her fighting abilities. An opponent has to be playing their very best to stop Świątek even on a bad day. Even though Rybakina and Sabalenka (and Krejčíková) are regularly challenging her, she’ll be ready for them and will adjust. I’m just looking forward to the brilliant tennis these battles will produce. The bar Świątek has set is being met, which is a big reason why the WTA is producing can’t-miss tennis right now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: