This week, we're highlighting our top five WTA players of the year. On Monday, December 7, we'll turn our focus to the ATP. Click here to read each selection.
At just 19 years old, Iga Swiatek made history in Paris by becoming the first Polish player to win a Grand Slam. She did it in triumphant style, unseeded without the loss of a set and, to say the very least, 2021 will be a big year of expectations for the world No. 17.
NOTABLE 2020 STATS
Titles: Roland Garros
Win-loss record: 14-5
Notable wins: Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Donna Vekic
While Swiatek ended 2019 with a four-month layoff to recover from foot surgery, she started 2020 with a bang by matching her—up until then—best Grand Slam performance. Unseeded with a respectable ranking of No. 56, she cruised to the fourth round in Melbourne before dropping a nail-biting three-setter to Anett Kontaveit.
By the time the tours resumed in August, Swiatek had put a ton of pressure on herself. Believing she had to make the most of her opportunities in New York with more than half of the Top 10 not in the draw, she struggled to perform with a first-round loss to qualifier Christina McHale at the Western & Southern Open and a third-round loss to Victoria Azarenka at the US Open.
"It was really hard for me to comeback from this COVID break," the Pole said. "I felt that when many players from the top are not going to be there, maybe there's an opportunity for me, so that was kind of stressful for me."
Disappointed, she headed home to Poland to regroup. Swiatek is based in Warsaw and trains with Polish coach Piotr Sierzputowski—the same coach she's been with since the very start of her pro career in 2016. Though she lost in the first round of Rome, she sensed she was making progress.
When she got to Paris, the site of her Grand Slam breakthrough in 2019, the teenager was buoyed by confidence in herself and encouraged by the presence of her psychologist Daria Abramowicz.
"I think there aren't many people that are talking about like psychology in tennis so it's a new thing," Swaitek said. "I have [a] psychologist on my team for like two years right now probably.
"I just believe that mental toughness is like probably most important thing in tennis right now because everybody can play on the highest level."
She started her run by dismantling last year’s Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova with the loss of just three games.
"I think going back to the good state I'm in right now it was a long process," she said afterward. "And it started at the Western & Southern, so I really needed a long time. But that was the first time I had such high expectations in my career so it wasn't easy, and I feel like next time it's going to be better because right now I have more experience."
Swiatek then tore through veteran Su-Wei Hsieh and an in-form Eugenie Bouchard. Her rematch with Simona Halep showed a complete reversal from the year before. In the same round in 2019, Swiatek had lost 6-1, 6-0 to the two-time Grand Slam champion.
This time, Swiatek was unstoppable and gave up just three games to the world No. 2. She shocked herself, the Romanian and the world.
"I am, I think stunned," Swiatek said. "Well, I was thinking about [last year], because as I said, it gave me, it was like a huge lesson for me. I knew that I can play differently and I can finally show my best tennis."
With the Roland Garros draws shaking out in unpredictable ways, Swiatek benefitted form early upsets and swept past two qualifiers in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal and semifinal. Acting like a veteran from start to finish, she dismissed Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in the final.
When the red clay had settled, Swiatek stood as the youngest to win a major since Rafael Nadal in 2005 and the youngest women’s Roland Garros champion since Monica Seles in 1992. Remarkably, it marked Swiatek's sole tour-level title, having reached her first final in Lugano in 2019. She had, however, won seven ITF trophies dating back to 2016.
Her breakthrough run catapulted Polish tennis and sport psychology to entirely new heights.
"I can see the difference when I'm mentally prepared and I'm ready to handle the stress, the pressure," she said. "I can see the difference where I can't. That's why I'm sometimes losing in first round and sometimes I can win a tournament."