In Paris, Nadal and Swiatek each sent a message about tennis’s future

In Paris, Nadal and Swiatek each sent a message about tennis’s future

The 19-year-old Pole signaled the rise of a new generation on the women’s side; the 34-year-old signaled the return of the greatest generation on the men’s.

“Congratulations, Rafael Nadal!” Iga Swiatek tweeted on Sunday. “It’s amazing to kind of share this experience with you. Am I even allowed to say this?”

The enthusiasm, the shyness, the warmth, the thought process happening right out in the open: Swiatek’s tweet summed up what tennis fans had seen, and loved, about the 19-year-old during Roland Garros.

And yes, she was allowed to share her first major title with Nadal’s 20th. Swiatek is a fan of Rafa’s—“He was the only player I watched”—and she has spent time training at his academy in Mallorca. Like everyone else at that academy, she dreamed—tentatively, of course—of doing what Nadal has done so many times: holding up the trophy at Roland Garros.

“Sometimes I caught myself visualizing that I’m also winning a Grand Slam,” Swiatek said, when she was asked if she was inspired by watching peers like Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu win their first majors. “But on the other hand, it was also, like, really far away…You believe in things, but in the back of your head you know there’s going to be, like, a huge amount of work that you have to do to win that.”

Does that quote remind you of anyone? It makes me think of the way Nadal has always approached the sport, with a mix of positivity and rationality, confidence and caution. He describes his upbeat mindset as “playing with the right emotions”; she says “you believe in things.” He calls the effort needed to succeed “suffering”; she calls it a “huge amount of work.”


Getty Images

However you want to describe it, their down-to-earth approach was an historic success over the last two weeks. At Roland Garros, Swiatek and Nadal became the first man and woman in the Open era to win the same Slam event without dropping a set. As easy as they made it look, neither took their title run for granted. In this upside-down year, it was hard for them to believe that anything like this would be possible.

“Right now, when I’m here and a Grand Slam champion, it’s crazy,” Swiatek said.

“For me, honestly, one month and a half ago if you tell me you're going to have this trophy with you again, I will say, ‘This year will probably be too difficult,’” Nadal said.

Rafa and Iga are obviously at different stages of their careers. She just won her first major title; he just won his 20th. Her victory was a breakthrough and an announcement; his was a culmination. After chasing Roger Federer up the major-title mountaintop for 15 years, he finally caught him. Rafa characteristically downplayed that milestone, and instead focused on his relationship with Roland Garros and Paris. He took the opportunity to talk about his love for the city and the tournament in a way he never had before. The fans there have never totally embraced Nadal; if the bleachers had been full, this could have been the moment when that all changed.

Despite their differences, I came away from Roland Garros thinking that Swiatek and Nadal both sent a message about the future of the sport as it closes out 2020 and looks to regroup in 2021.

The message from Swiatek is that there’s a top tier of talented and thoughtful young women players that is growing with each Slam. Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Ashley Barty, Sofia Kenin, and now Swiatek each upended the WTA with their major-title runs over the last three years. Each plays interesting tennis, and each brings a different energy to the court. Osaka and Swiatek already seem to be each other’s biggest fans. Now, as Swiatek alluded to in her final press conference, we just need to get them all playing well at once.

“I know my game isn't developed perfectly,” Swiatek said. “Also I think the biggest change for me is going to be to be consistent. I think this is what women's tennis is struggling with. That's why we have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not, like, as consistent as Rafa, Roger, and Novak. That's why my goal is going to be to be consistent. It's going to be really hard to achieve that.”

What Nadal said after his victory:

 

Where Swiatek’s win signaled the rise of a new generation, Nadal’s signaled the return of an old one—the Big 3 generation, the greatest generation. Just two weeks after Dominic Thiem ended their long streak of major titles in New York, Nadal and Djokovic reestablished their positions at the top of the ATP in Paris.

It was nice, after all these months, to have that Big 3 vibe back, wasn’t it? Nadal and Djokovic have played 56 times, but for me their matchup never gets old, because they’re always making adjustments to each other, and then making adjustments to those adjustments. Beyond that, they also brought a sense of perspective and sportsmanship that can only be gained after fighting each other for big titles for a decade and a half. Djokovic called Nadal the king of clay, Nadal said he was pleased to share this era with Djokovic, and each rightly marveled at the other’s career and achievements.

Their missing Big 3 brother, Federer, got in on the action later, when he tweeted about his respect for Nadal, and his satisfaction in sharing the 20-Slam record with his friend and rival. One of the best things about Sunday was the way Federer and Nadal immediately put the clamps down on the GOAT debate, Rafa by de-emphasizing his 20th title, Roger by emphasizing their bond. The debate will happen eventually, of course, but each of them went out of his way to say that this wasn’t the day for it.

The dual dominance by Nadal and Swiatek in Paris was also a story about what young athletes can learn from legendary athletes. Watching Swiatek stride out for one of her matches clutching a racquet in one hand and listening to music on her big black headphones reminded of watching Nadal do the same thing when he was 19. (In her case, the music was “Welcome to the Jungle,” in his, it might have been “Phantom of the Opera.”) As players, they have their similarities: The ball seems to explode off their strings, and they both love putting as much topspin on it as possible. But they win in different ways: Swiatek with easy power, Nadal with gritty consistency.

What Swiatek said after her victory:

 

What Swiatek seems to have learned from Nadal is the most important thing a role model can teach. It’s not about how to hit a forehand or when to go for a winner. It’s about trusting yourself.

As a teenager, Nadal did things differently. His uncle was his coach, he stood 10 feet behind the baseline, he leapt in the air to celebrate his winning shots, and he played with a physical abandon that most people thought was unsustainable. Rafa’s style had its skeptics, but he didn’t change anything, and now he has 20 major titles.

Swiatek’s game, in particular the spin and power she generates, is unique, too. On Saturday, she was asked whether she thought she was doing something different from everyone else..

“I know that my topspin forehand can be dangerous,” Swiatek said. “Yeah, I don't know actually where that came from because I always played like huge topspin and I love to spin the ball.”

“Really, I mean, I just have my instincts. I think this is helping me a lot.”

In that sense, Iga really did share the experience with Rafa. He won his 20th, she won her first, but they each trusted their instincts and did it their own way.