The Rally: Swiatek's promise in personality equal to playing potential

The Rally: Swiatek's promise in personality equal to playing potential

In Saturday's Roland Garros final, Iga Swiatek did to Sofia Kenin what she has done to all of her opponents over the fortnight: took the racquet out of her hand. On Swiatek’s stunningly dominant Paris title run, and how much she could add to the sport.

In this special edition of The Rally, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk about Iga Swiatek’s stunningly dominant title run in Paris, and how much she could add to the sport, as a player and personality.


Hi Steve,

That was an amazing display of power, accuracy, movement and poise from Iga Swiatek. What a way to win her first WTA title. This run to a major reminded me of another precocious 19-year-old, Pete Sampras, calmly and proficiently taking the 1990 US Open. And judging from Swiatek’s technique and playing style, she strikes me as a sustainable contender.  

This is a great time for women’s tennis. It’s not just that so many of these players are skilled, but also that they have such a diverse range of styles. Swiatek’s game smothered one opponent after another these last two weeks.  I’m looking forward to seeing her go toe-to-toe versus so many WTA greats—the hard-hitting Naomi Osaka, the nimble Ashleigh Barty, the legendary Serena Williams, the resurgent Victoria Azarenka (who beat Swiatek last month at the US Open), the tenacious Simona Halep, the versatile Bianca Andreescu, and so many others.

Then there’s Sofia Kenin. Having won one major this year and reached the finals of another, she’s clearly the 2020 player of the year—that is, of this incredibly difficult and challenging year for the entire planet. As she showed vividly in Melbourne and Paris, Kenin competes with a rare level of urgency and tactical acumen. It’s engaging, refreshing and, notable for those seeking to study the game, exceptionally intelligent. Think of Kenin as combining the intensity of a Monica Seles with the court savvy of Martina Hingis. And yet, as is the case with all great players, Kenin is very much her own player.

Steve, what struck you about the Swiatek-Kenin matchup today?

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Joel,

I kept waiting—and waiting, and waiting—for either the Slam-final rookie Swiatek’s nerves to kick in, or for the tactically savvy Kenin to find a way to defuse her power and break her down. But neither happened. Swiatek only got better and more accurate with a lead, while Kenin, who had her left leg rewrapped mid-match, never got her teeth into the match at all. Swiatek did to Kenin what she has done to all of her opponents over the last two weeks: took the racquet out of her hand. In that sense, you’re right, there was a Samprasian quality to her win. Pete didn’t let his opponents play their games, either. Sampras did it primarily with his serve; Swiatek does it with those heavy ground strokes. The ball explodes off her racquet, and she can hit forcing shots without taking a lot of risk.

You talk about a diversity of styles in women’s tennis, Joel, and that’s true. I think Swiatek’s win is also significant because she adds to the tour’s diversity of personalities. She obviously has an engaging one. She has interests outside of tennis, and wants to discover as much about the world as she can. We know about her “Welcome to the Jungle” addiction, but I like that she says she’s listening to “jazz, even,” because “it’s something new to me.” Swiatek already seems to have bonded with Naomi Osaka, and she sounded a lot like her in her appealingly rambly post-match interview and trophy speech. “Should I say something else?” is how Swiatek ended the latter. For now, she’s done enough speaking with her racquet.

This brings an end to the Grand Slam season on the women’s side. Where do you think it leaves the tour, Joel, and do you expect Swiatek to take her place in, say, the Top 5 soon?

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Steve,

With so many interesting players—styles, personalities, countries—the WTA has a great opportunity.

The trick is the world we live in. Though of course, the pandemic has affected many things far more important than tennis, it’s also massively impacted the tennis calendar. Events have been cancelled. Quarantines remain, such as the 14-day one required upon arrival in Australia. Current and prospective sponsors wonder if and how they might engage with tennis. Surely, all year long, those in charge of the WTA (and ATP) have been taking a long, hard look at tennis’ economic landscape—including the viability of a wide range of tournaments and what the future calendar will look like.   

So while Swiatek sure seems to be playing top five tennis, her ability to generate the ranking points that officially get her there is highly compromised. Added to this is that, in a smart move, as the pandemic hit, the WTA (and ATP) agreed to take this approach to ranking points: a player could retain points earned in 2019—or use a better result from 2020. Swiatek has earned tons of points for this title effort. But defending Roland Garros champion Barty will not have to surrender the points she earned in 2019. This makes the ranking chart far less fluid than in normal times.

Perhaps, well into 2021, we’ll have to hold two different rankings in our heads—those as detailed on the WTA computer, and a more informal, up-to-the-minute Top 10 based on more recent performances and results. No question, this could get complicated, but hopefully, by sometime next year, players will have had the chance to play at many events and we’ll have some indication of where things stand.

But as far as the WTA goes, I hope that even amid such hard times that the tour takes steps to further promote and give fans the chance to get to know this remarkable set of players. 

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Joel,

Good points about the immediate future of the WTA. The two weeks in New York during the US Open, and now these two weeks in Paris, briefly made me forget about what the pandemic has done to the sport, and what it will likely continue to do next year. The tours calendar is a cratered landscape right now, and no one knows what it will look like in 2021. But that’s where sports really do come in: Watching Swiatek over the last two weeks erased all of that uncertainty about the future from my mind.

And what about Swiatek’s own future? As she was powering winners into the corners today, I thought about the many other players, some legends, some not, who have made their Slam breakthroughs in Paris in the past, from Borg and Evert in the 1970s;, to Graf, Seles and Sanchez Vicario in the 1980s and 90s; to Nadal and Ostapenko and others more recently. I couldn’t help but wonder: In Swiatek, are we seeing the rise of an enduring champion like Evert or Seles, or more of a hit-and-miss player like Ostapenko?

The consistently dominant way in which Swiatek won this event makes me think she’s someone who will win five or more majors. But anyone who remembers her blitz loss to Simona Halep in Paris last year also knows that Iga can go off the rails on a bad day. Swiatek reminds me, personality-wise, of Osaka, and maybe she’ll be a champion in the Osaka vein. Not as thoroughly dominant as, say, Graf (who is?), but someone who will win big events at a steady pace, and always be in the conversation.

Most important, Swiatek will be someone very much worth watching as she matures and evolves as a person. The potential in her personality is as obvious as her potential as a player.

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