Iron fist in a velvet glove — the Swiatek way



The 20-year-old’s radiant demeanour sheathes a brutal, frighteningly good all-court game. Already World No. 1, she has shown signs this year that she can dominate women’s tennis

The 20-year-old’s radiant demeanour sheathes a brutal, frighteningly good all-court game. Already World No. 1, she has shown signs this year that she can dominate women’s tennis

In September 2020, Iga Swiatek was losing to an unheralded qualifier from The Netherlands, Arantxa Rus — a player ranked in the 70s, then and now — in the first round of the Italian Open. At a time when world tennis was slowly finding its feet amidst the ravages of a global pandemic, with the powers that be expectantly looking at a battery of top stars to lead the recovery, a Pole ranked just outside the top 50 — albeit a junior Wimbledon champion — was not on the radar.

Nineteen months since, 20-year-old Swiatek is radiantly famous, a terrier of a player blessed with boundless energy and upbeat tenacity. Barely weeks after that defeat in Rome, she claimed her maiden Major at the French Open to become the lowest-ranked women’s singles champion at Roland-Garros. She is now on an unbroken 23-match winning run, victorious at the last four tournaments she has entered (Stuttgart, the most recent) and the undisputed World No.1.

If Ash Barty’s abrupt retirement six weeks ago, while at the pinnacle, was akin to a ‘knocking the air out of your lungs’ moment for women’s tennis, Swiatek’s rise and her authoritative presence at the top in an astonishingly short period have come like oxygen.

Even as men’s tennis continues to go through cycles of servitude and deference to a trio of 30-somethings — not in a bad way — the women’s game has become this thriving example of the young and fledgling supplanting the old, and taking the sport towards an exciting future.

The manner of her ascendency to the top of the world may not have been to Swiatek’s liking. Barty’s retirement and subsequent desire to remove herself from the rankings resulted in Swiatek rising to No. 1 by default, days after becoming the World No. 2 with the Indian Wells triumph.

Sunshine Double

But nothing in her tennis suggested she didn’t belong. She backed up the Indian Wells success with the title in Miami to complete the ‘Sunshine Double’, a feat so rare that only three other women have ever achieved it (Steffi Graf, Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka).

It was surprising to see someone so young not fall off the emotional cliff. Women’s tennis is often considered a rollercoaster, where the expectation is for a breakout star to soon morph into a hit-or-miss champion. Emma Raducanu, the teenaged US Open winner from 2021, is still trying to come to grips with her game that has gone to pieces in the aftermath of that historic high in New York.

Swiatek, on the other hand, seems poised. She may not dazzle on the court like Barty, or be as exhilarating and charismatic as Naomi Osaka. But she possesses a brutal all-court game and carries herself with a youthful confidence reminiscent of a young Maria Sharapova who beat Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final back in 2004, aged all of 17.

Explosive athleticism and nimble footwork are central to Swiatek’s style. She has a superb kick serve and plays the heavy topspin game. The forehand, hit with a western grip, may lack flourish, with the arm bent at the point of contact. But this is what makes her whipped forehands and the use of short-angles to change direction at will so difficult to read. She can hit forcing shots without appearing to take a lot of risks. Straightforwardly elusive, one can say.

And she knows how to smother a tennis match. When she won the French Open, she dropped all of 28 games and not a single set. Starting with Paris, she has won all seven of her finals in straight sets, losing more than two games in just three of the 14 sets.

This year, the aggression has been evident in her style of play too, especially on the return. Her return numbers are in fact tour-leading; she has won more return points (50.7%) and more return games (52.7%) than she has lost, an astounding stat.

Solid game

“I always wanted to be solid and be the kind of clay-court player who is going to play topspin and stay back,” Swiatek said in February. “But really, right now tennis is getting faster and faster. You can see that in tournaments. Players who are attacking and leading are winning. I also wanted to learn how to do that.

“At first, I had that attitude that, ‘hey, I’m happy with my solid game, you know.’ But this is actually making my matches easier, so I don’t know why I was so stubborn (smiling).”

Maria Sakkari, the World No. 5 from Greece, has borne the brunt, losing both her matches to Swiatek in 2022, including the Indian Wells final, after having triumphed in all three encounters last year. “She’s not the Iga she was a year ago,” Sakkari said in March. “She has been playing very, very aggressive and I was actually very surprised with that change when I played her in Doha.”

To the casual watcher, such analysis of a one-time Major champion might seem overblown. After all, in the last 19 Slams stretching back five years, there have been 11 first-time winners, Swiatek being merely one of them. But in a landscape replete with ‘not so thoroughly dominant’ but capable champions, she has been a model of consistency. In fact, in 2021, she was the only woman to reach at least the round-of-16 at all four Majors.

What is also often disregarded is that women’s tennis has greater variance than the men’s game. It is more amenable to the all-courters, leading to a larger group of contenders, and it is best-of-three-set matches across the board, unlike in men’s where the Grand Slams are played over five sets.

In recent times, the trio of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have separated themselves from the rest through their problem-solving capability over a longer duration. In best-of-three-set matches, the margins are pretty small, leading to a capricious set of results.

It is also modern-day tennis’ bugbear to measure all success through the number of Majors won. Swiatek’s achievements this year — four tournament wins from seven, a 32-3 win-loss record, 5-1 against top-10 players — are frighteningly good. It is globe-trotting excellence of the highest order, with the achievements spread across Australia, Asia, North America and Europe, by the sea and by the desert, on hard and clay.

While it’s true that four months of spellbinding success do not make a great career and it probably behoves us to be cautious, Swiatek’s unassuming flair, sugar-coated dominance and child-like positivity have no doubt had the tennis world transfixed. She has come a long way since that day in Rome. With Roland-Garros fast approaching, there is no chance of her slipping under the radar.


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