Weekend Review: Swiatek accomplishes first goal of 2021 in Adelaide

Weekend Review: Swiatek accomplishes first goal of 2021 in Adelaide

Like her favorite player, Rafael Nadal, the 19-year-old never seems to take an aimless step or a hesitant swing.

“I’ve never actually experienced playing a final with a full stadium,” Iga Swiatek said after her 6-2, 6-2 win over Belinda Bencic in the final of the Adelaide International on Saturday.

By now, the pandemic has gone on long enough that it’s the packed arenas, rather than the empty ones, that seem weird for the players. That goes double for someone as young as Swiatek. The 19-year-old Warsaw native won her only other title inside a mostly deserted Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros last year. But she didn’t seem to have any trouble adjusting to the energy that the Australian spectators brought to the court this weekend. According to Swiatek, the noisier they became as the match went on, the more confident she was that she was destined to win it.

“Especially on the changeovers, when I heard all the fans screaming, I felt in my body that the match is going to come to an end,” Swiatek said. “I was just trying to cool down and just do the same as I was doing.”

The presence of fans wasn’t the only difference between Swiatek’s two triumphs. In Paris, she played on her favorite surface, clay, and on the game’s biggest stage, a Grand Slam final. In Adelaide, she played on hard courts, in a mid-level WTA event. While her second title obviously doesn’t have the prestige of her first, Swiatek treated it as a test of almost equal importance. Yes, she wants to win the big ones, but she wants to win the small ones, too.

“It was my goal from the beginning of the season. I want to be, like, more consistent player, just play good week by week,” Swiatek said.

“It’s good for me because I can see that I can play good tennis for the whole week. It wasn’t like one time during the French Open. It gives me more confidence that I’m, like, more developed player and I can play good more often. I’m really happy about that.”

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There were differences between Paris and Adelaide, but there was also one overarching similarity: Swiatek dominated from start to finish, in the rallies and on the scoreline. She didn’t drop a set in seven matches at Roland Garros, and she didn’t drop one in five matches this week. Both times she deluged her opponents with a relentless, unpredictable, forward-surging attack.

“I never knew where she's going to play,” a beleaguered Bencic said after the 66-minute final. “She played, yeah, like it was overwhelming for me.”

Swiatek says she is trying to play closer to the baseline on hard courts, and she didn’t give up any ground, or face any break points, against Bencic. On her serve, Swiatek used the wide slice in the deuce court and followed it, as often as not, with a winning forehand. On her return, she stood in and took full cuts at first and second serves; even when she missed, Swiatek didn’t back off or go for less. From the baseline, Swiatek won points with straightforward crosscourt forehands, but also by going behind and wrong-footing Bencic. And when she had a chance at a putaway, she took it with gusto. On one short forehand, Swiatek raced in from the back of the court, took a running leap as the ball reached its peak, and swiped it away for a winner. Like her friend Naomi Osaka, Swiatek hits the ball hard enough that she doesn’t need to aim it near the lines.

“I think she has a really big game,” Bencic said. “It’s very unique. I struggled a lot today with how different she played. I just couldn’t figure out, like, her patterns or her serve or anything at all.”

If Swiatek felt any nerves trying to cross the finish line, she didn’t show them. Once she had the lead, she swung more freely and went for winners even earlier. How to handle those close-out nerves is something that Swiatek and her mental coach, Daria Abramowicz, have talked about, seemingly with instructive results. According to Swiatek, the problem isn’t that she tightens up down the stretch, it’s the opposite.

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“It’s not about the nerves, but if I’m leading on a match, sometimes I think that it’s like 4-1, my brain is kind of loosening up, I’m not as focused as I was before,” she said. “I'm trying to fight with that. The most important thing is to let go of that thought and just keep doing your work.”

“So I think, like, most of the people struggle with that. When they see their goal, they're there already. So yeah, I just remember what I'm doing with Daria. She explain to me a lot that kind of mechanism. I try to prevent that and just focusing on being here at the same moment because it’s tennis, everything can change in, like, five minutes.”

Once you see the finish line, how can you not start to imagine yourself crossing it? It’s a question, as Swiatek says, that every tennis player has to find an answer for. The fact that she already understands that this is a natural “mechanism” in everyone’s brain is a good start. In Paris and now in Adelaide, she showed an ability to continue concentrating on the ball in front of her—“doing my job,” as Swiatek likes to put it.

Swiatek did her job in Australia. Like the rest of the tennis world, she wondered how she would react to winning her first major title so suddenly and so early. She was likely disappointed by her Australian Open; while she fulfilled her seeding by reaching the fourth round, she was out-strategized by Simona Halep, and ended up losing a match she could have won. But she put it behind her right away in Adelaide, and played with the same upbeat hyper-focus that we saw in Paris. Like her favorite player, Rafael Nadal, Swiatek never seems to take an aimless step or a hesitant swing.

“Every second of my being on court has a purpose,” she says.

Swiatek’s first mission of 2021 has been accomplished. You get the feeling it won’t be the last.