FEATURE – For all her love of Rafael Nadal, there is a bit of Roger Federer in Iga Swiatek
When Ash Barty announced her retirement in March, few people were more shocked than Iga Swiatek.
The Australian had just won her home Grand Slam, the first woman to do so since 1978, and was riding high at the top of the world rankings. Behind her, Swiatek had begun the year well, reaching the semi-finals in Melbourne and had won back to back titles in Doha and Indian Wells. It seemed like they were on their way to building a genuine rivalry.
Swiatek was sad and worried she would lose motivation, in much the same way that the sudden retirement of Bjorn Borg left John McEnroe feeling bereft, his main rival gone.
“For sure at the beginning I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed and a little bit maybe scared of what’s going to happen,” the ever-thoughtful and eloquent Pole told reporters at the French Open earlier this month.
“I was feeling pretty sad, because I wasn’t expecting that Ash is going to retire. I thought that she has the best things out there. So it was just a shame for me that we are not going to be able to play against each other.
“Also, because having a thought that maybe some day I’m going to be able to play the same kind of tennis. I mean, to play at the same level and maybe really compete against Ash and maybe win some matches against her, it was really motivating me.”
Suddenly, with Barty gone, she needed just one match in Miami to become world No 1. It was something that could have been a cause of stress but instead, Swiatek accepted her situation, knuckled down and duly won the Miami Open, the third of six straight titles, which culminated in June in her second Roland-Garros crown.
Swiatek sits alone at the top of the women’s world rankings, with almost twice as many points as the No 2, Anett Kontaveit. For some players, being world No 1 is a burden that sits heavy on their shoulders; for Swiatek, it’s an honour that she is actively embracing.
At 21, Swiatek seems to walk taller than her 5ft 9in, proud of her achievements, confident in herself and yet managing to tread the fine line between belief and arrogance. When she put on a jacket with two stars on it, one for each slam, after her victory at Roland-Garros, she wore it well.
In many ways it was reminiscent of Roger Federer, perhaps the man who embraced being world No 1 better than anyone in history. When Federer won Wimbledon in 2009 to become the then-leading Grand Slam winner with 15, he put on a jacket with “15” emblazoned on it, handed to him by his clothing sponsor, Nike. Federer was not remotely embarrassed; instead, he loved it.
For all her love of Rafael Nadal, there is a bit of the Federer in Swiatek. She seems to really enjoy being world No 1, the realisation of a dream but also a reward for all the hard work she has done, on and off the court.
“I like it,” Swiatek said in Paris. “Sometimes, for sure, all the new obligations I have are pretty tiring, but I have to remember to, you know, have balance in everything. But, no, I like it. But it’s kind of hard to describe because it’s like, I don’t know, you can feel that in the air. I don’t have examples (of what it’s like), but it is there.”
Another indication of Swiatek’s self-confidence is her honesty. It would be easy for her to keep her cards close to her chest when discussing strengths or weaknesses, thought processes, or how she deals with all the pressure of being at the top.
But Swiatek is seemingly not afraid to talk about anything and as a result, her openness is actually a strength. Her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, likes her to be herself in her dealings with the media. If she doesn’t want to answer a question, then she won’t. But as far as Abramowicz is concerned, Swiatek, and any player, is better off if they are assertive, be their natural self and own the narrative.
It’s great advice to a young player and Swiatek is intelligent enough to understand how it helps her, especially when it comes to dealing with off-tennis topics, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the tennis world. As world No 1, her opinion matters.
“I feel like I have that responsibility, but on the other hand, I don’t have much life experience and I’m aware of that,” she said. “When I’m going to be ready to say more I will and you’re going to see it.”
“Still I am finding the proper balance in between those things. I’m learning how to balance all that stuff, but I feel like there is more pressure and kind of responsibility. But I also hope that people are going to be aware that I’m still 20 and I don’t have to make the biggest decisions in our sport.”
For now, when she hears herself announced on court as the world No 1, she feels proud and strengthened, instead of being burdened.
“Right now it’s a little bit different, because I feel like with my new ranking, people around are treating me a little bit differently,” she admitted.
“So the world has changed, for sure (smiling). But I feel like I’m staying the same player and the same person. I feel like there is a lot to improve.”
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