When Ash Barty unexpectedly retired earlier this year, it left a void at the top of the women’s rankings. She was the world number one and had been for a couple of years, but her departure meant it was time for someone else to take that mantle.
Enter Iga Swiatek.
The 20-year-old from Poland catapulted to the top spot in the world rankings back in March, but it was not solely based on Barty leaving the tour. Her place atop the rest of the world came on the heels of a dominant beginning to the year, racking up titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami.
By winning in Indian Wells and Miami, Swiatek became only the fourth woman to ever complete the Sunshine Double. At the end of Miami, Swiatek was the top-ranked women in the world, and she sits more than 2,000 ranking points ahead of second-ranked Barbora Krejcikova.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA
“At the beginning it felt a little bit like I had to pinch myself. It was a bit surreal and overwhelmed me,” Swiatek said on becoming the world number one. “But it happened during the Miami Open and I still had to concentrate on my tennis and the next match, so that helped me to stay the same kind of player I was even before I became world No. 1. There were a lot of emotions but I had to postpone them to after the tournament so I could stay focused and play well.”
She did just that, and remained grounded while she completed her run in Miami. When it was over, she was able to take it all in, and had to sort through an array of messages and congratulations on her phone.
“I got a lot of messages. My phone, for three days, it was like my birthday with messages from everywhere,” she recalled. “A lot of people congratulated me. Ash [Barty] for example. She was one of the first people that texted me. Lots of players onsite too [in Miami], so that was very nice. Rafa [Nadal] texted me as well, and many people on Instagram and Twitter. I can’t remember everyone.”
Barty heaped praise upon Swiatek:
"There is no better person. The way that she's brought this fresh, fearless energy onto the court has been incredible. I hope she can take it and still be her, do it her own way, and really chase what she's after in her career and her dreams."
Those tennis dreams for Swiatek began when she first got into tennis. She started playing because, like a lot of younger siblings, she saw her older sister Agata playing and she wanted to not only be like her, but also beat her. While injury troubles would halt the path of Agata’s, career, Iga had developed into a talented junior who rose as high as No. 5 in the ITF World Junior rankings.
A couple of years later, in 2019, Swiatek began competing in WTA-tour level events, and would soon be making her way to the top. Swiatek’s rise has been on a steady trajectory over the last two years and she had her breakthrough when she won the 2020 French Open, an event that started when she was ranked just 54th in the world.
En route to that title, she knocked off former champion and second-ranked Simona Halep, and then beat American Sofia Kenin in the finals. In doing so, Swiatek became the first player from Poland to win a Slam title, and the lowest-ranked French Open champion in the history of the WTA rankings.
That quick rise to fame and notoriety can be difficult on someone so young, and the pitfalls that come with it are easy to fall into. But Swiatek was able to handle the expectations due to her work with a sports psychologist, which she says greatly helped her ability to navigate the muddy waters associated with fame.
“When I started to work with Daria [Abramowicz] in 2019, my main goal was to improve things on court, being more focused and in control of my emotions,” said Swiatek. “But then it switched to talking more about my personal life, working on my confidence as a person, and growing up, dealing with popularity, or the business side of the sport. I feel we’ve been working on everything.”
That work went a long way to helping Swiatek after winning the French Open, and that work continues now that she has become the No. 1 women’s player in the world.
“Since the big thing happened, when I won in Roland Garros, I didn’t have time to chill out. I felt like I always needed to chase something, prepare for the next season and those big expectations,” she said. “And now that I’m No.1, it only doubles. So it feels like we had a lot of work with Daria. She’s really helpful. It’s necessary for my team to take care of me. My coach takes care of my tennis, my physio takes care of my body, but I also need someone to be there for me when I want and need to talk.
I want to have fun, play good and do the best I can. But I don’t want to lose myself. I want to enjoy my life on tour, so I’m trying to keep it cool.”
Photo Credit: Brad Penner/USTA
Swiatek will use that well-rounded environment she has put herself in to attack the next challenge in front of her, and at present moment, that is the French Open. She has always embraced playing on clay, and now looks forward to her annual trips to Roland Garros, the place that was home to what she hopes was the first of multiple Slam titles.
“Clay court, even though I’m not going to win all the tournaments or something, I still feel the most comfortable there,” said Swiatek. “It’s just more fun for me to play on clay, and I always have that extra motivation before Roland Garros, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen also this year, and I’m just going to be working hard.”
This story first appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com