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Young Adult: Iga Swiatek slides back to clay with ambition, exuberance
Reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek kicked off her clay-court campaign with a dominance reminiscent of how she captured her maiden major title last fall.
Published May 01, 2021
It took one wild fortnight in Paris to turn Iga Swiatek from unassuming teenager to one of the most sought-after stars of her sport. Tasked with replicating her monumental effort at Roland Garros barely six months after lifting the trophy last fall, the 19-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is what I’ve wanted my whole life,” she told me after an opening round win at the Miami Open. “Sometimes I have so many obligations that it can be overwhelming, but that’s why I’m grateful to have such a supportive team. They’re always watching and when they sense things are becoming too much for me, they try to protect me.”
That team, led by coach Piotr Sierzputowski and omnipresent sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, has clearly come up with a master plan for their young prodigy, but it has been up to Swiatek to execute. Thus far, she has done so to near perfection, backing up her Roland Garros run with a fourth-round finish at the Australian Open and a first WTA hard-court title in Adelaide.
Back on clay for the Mutua Madrid Open, Swiatek won four more straight sets on the terre battue, dropping just two games against Alison Riske and surviving a titanic final game to solve Laura Siegemund after 11 match points. So meteoric has been her rise that the No. 14 seed is at the Caja Magica for the first time; when the event was last held in 2019, she was ranked outside the Top 100.
“Things feel the same because we’ve been trying to keep the same routines I had before. Even though I have many more media obligations and other things to do off the court, I try to block all of that out at tournaments. When I go back to Poland, I have some busier moments because that’s where I’m balancing practices with media and sponsor stuff. It can be hard to switch between an intense four days at home to being back in the tournament bubble. You have to switch modes quickly, but I don’t mind this kind of lifestyle.
“I actually like the bubble because I don’t have so many external factors coming in; I can just focus on recovery and matches.”
Lockdown threatened to derail Swiatek’s sophomore season, one that had promisingly begun with a second-week appearance in Melbourne; it instead gave her an opportunity to indulge uninterrupted in academic meditation.
“I had high school, some huge final exams [in the spring] I had to focus on, so I actually had time to study. I think I’m one of the few people who really benefitted from the pandemic, as strange as that sounds. I’m sort of relieved I didn’t have to go through graduation exams and the Olympic Games all in the same year.”
Swiatek’s pursuit of education has continued even after graduation: at an airport earlier this year, she happened upon A Promised Land, the new memoir from former U.S. President Barack Obama.
“I don’t really know too much about U.S. politics, so I figured I’d learn something.”
Books have long been a refuge for the precocious Pole, whose initial fascination with the Tudor dynasty has taken her on an adventure across British history—and provides a necessary escape from both daily grind and growing weight of expectations.
“In troubling times,” she mused, “I like getting to be in a different world, if even for a second.”
What Swiatek seeks from her paper time machines, many get from her own game, which, with its exuberant spin and angles evoke its own elements of fantasy. Her dominant opener over Riske saw her strike nearly 30 winners to bundle her American opponent off the court in just over an hour, leaving many enthusiastic about her prospects of winning a second major title in 2021.
More concerned with worst case scenarios, Swiatek remains her own harshest critic.
“I'm ambitious,” she told press in Madrid. “I always want to play perfect. That's not a good attitude. So, I'm still learning how to ‘win ugly,’ and sometimes perform good even though I'm not feeling perfect.”
Fellow Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka has expressed similar sentiments throughout her career, and the two have unsurprisingly become fast friends since meeting on court two years ago in Toronto.
Together, the two have split the last three post-pandemic major tournaments, and it is in that context that Swiatek’s no-nonsense maturity briefly melts away.
“When you talk about things like that," she says in Miami with a smile, "I start to feel really proud of myself. A few years ago, I could have never imagined that.”