Iga Swiatek’s plan falls into place

PARIS — Iga Swiatek, undefeated since February, sat in the players’ restaurant at the French Open, turning her head right and left at high speed, her eyes comically wide as they darted back and forth.

This was her impression of her former self.

“I remember a time when I could only concentrate for 40 minutes and suddenly my head was like a dove,” Swiatek said in an interview. “I searched everywhere, but where I should have looked.”

Her gaze and her game are now very stable. After winning the French Open in 2020 out of the blue and out of season in October as an unseeded teenager, she is back in Paris this spring as a dominant and increasingly intimidating No. 1 in the world.

At 20 years old, it’s like – in Jedi Knight fashion – she has the full powers at her disposal.

“I’m not a Star Wars fan, but that makes sense,” Swiatek said.

Swiatek, who claimed the top spot in women’s singles on April 3, has won five consecutive tournaments: three on hard courts and two on clay. She has won 29 consecutive singles matches, the longest streak in nine years on the WTA Tour, often dominated by skewed, in-the-zone margins that fans joke she must enjoy baking because of all the bagels (sets won 6-0 ) and baguettes (sets won 6-1).

They defeated Naomi Osaka, the most famous player of their generation, 6-4, 6-0, in the Miami Open final last month, and Swiatek reopened the bakery on Monday, taking on Ukrainian qualifier Lesia Tsurenko, 6-2. 6-0, in just 54 minutes in the first round of the French Open.

“When I see the rankings next to my name, it’s still pretty surreal,” said Swiatek, the first number 1 in singles from Poland on both tours.

Will she now run taller as she makes her way around the grounds, hitting the dressing rooms of Roland Garros and her idol, 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, on the practice courts?

“I feel much, much longer than two years ago,” she said.

Part of Swiatek’s newfound dominance is no doubt due to the surprising abdication of Ashleigh Barty, the all-game Australian star who suddenly retired in March at the age of 25 while holding the No. 1 position shortly after winning the Australian Open. Barty was 2-0 against Swiatek, beating her in January in a tournament in Adelaide, Australia, one of only three defeats for Swiatek this season.

But Swiatek, one of the fastest and most acrobatic athletes in the women’s game, was already building momentum with Tomasz Wiktorowski, her new coach, before Barty retired. With a yen for self-improvement and world travel and a long-term plan to avoid injury and boredom, Swiatek appears equipped to be a champion with staying power in the women’s game where the biggest stars (the Williams sisters and Osaka) are no longer the best players and where too many new stars have collapsed or, in Barty’s case, gone away altogether.

“You have to remind yourself that you want to do this on tour for many years,” Swiatek said. “You can’t burn yourself out.”

Swiatek, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, and her team recognize that this trait cuts both ways in a sport where perfection is impossible. It can destroy players for complaining about the inevitable mistakes, but it can also fuel a deep internal drive.

Swiatek is well aware of the downside, which is partly why she’s been working with psychologists since her junior career. She still has her struggle. At the WTA Finals last November in Guadalajara, Mexico, in her last game of the season, she began to cry on the pitch during the final stage of her round-robin loss to Maria Sakkari.

“I felt like I was getting more tired every month and in Guadalajara that was definitely the high point for me where I just didn’t have a battery to kind of control my emotions,” she said.

With a view to conserving battery power, she strives for a work-life balance, which means playing less doubles and adding more tourist time in the cities she visits after all the pandemic restrictions and bubbles of 2020 and 2021 only tournaments. In Rome this month, on her way to her final title, took in the Colosseum and made two visits to the Vatican.

Avoiding burnout also means compartmentalization, and Swiatek’s chief practitioner is Daria Abramowicz, her full-time performance psychologist.

Swiatek said she realized that after Abramowicz started traveling with her to tournaments in 2019, sports psychology was best practiced locally, not during office visits in Warsaw.

“It’s just much, much easier for me to trust someone who’s basically always around me,” she said.

Abramowicz, 35, is a constant companion on tournament sites and keeps a close eye on Swiatek’s mentality and energy level. She urges Swiatek to keep her answers to press conferences shorter to save energy. She even made sure that Swiatek didn’t read the ending of the “Gone With the Wind” novel the same day she had a match to avoid feeling emotionally drained.

Abramowicz wants to create a haven for Swiatek through her routine and support system. “No matter how much storm is around, there is always an eye of the hurricane that must be calm; this core that should always be the same,” she said.

Abramowicz prefers metaphors, and she and Swiatek use the image of opening and closing drawers.

“In the beginning, everything tennis was in one drawer and non-tennis stuff in one drawer,” said Abramowicz.

But they’ve expanded the concept, even using it to break down matches into more manageable chunks.

To increase Swiatek’s ability to play in the zone, they use various brain training tools and technology. But they’ve also used more classical methods: visualization and breathing exercises, which Swiatek sometimes does at transitions with a towel draped over her head.

For those used to seeing Swiatek on the pitch, where she plays in a cap with her ponytail dangling from the back, being in her hatless presence with her shoulder-length dark hair framing her face is a novelty. She has an open countenance.

“I can’t measure her smarts, but she’s curious, and I think it’s the way to be smart,” says Maciej Ryszczuk, Swiatek’s fitness trainer and physical therapist. “If she doesn’t know something, she asks and if not, she reads about it.”

Although Swiatek calls herself shy and becomes exhausted from too much socializing, she is easy to be with. She is quick to understand, even in her second language English. She can make a joke; she turns away or flatly rejects compliments and exchanges book recommendations as easily as foundations, even if the book titles, unlike the tennis titles, escape her at times.

For her 20th birthday, her management team gave her 20 books, all in Polish, because for Swiatek long reading in English, despite her command of the language, still feels like studying. “I always write down words I don’t know,” she said.

The subjects of the 20 books varied widely: from ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell to ‘The Crisis Caravan’ by Linda Polman to ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert.

“I sometimes feel weird if I don’t read for a few days,” Swiatek said. “Because I feel like, oh, that’s a signal that I don’t have the balance in my life that I should have.”

Although there were no tennis books in her birthday package, she has twice read Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’, writing that he came to love the game after hating it.

Where is she on that scale?

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s hard,” she said, as she often does, as if she’s about to laugh without making the transition to laughter.

“It’s definitely a love-hate relationship,” she said of tennis. “I’m not the kind of person who fell in love with it from the first time. I am aware that if my father hadn’t been so persistent and so encouraging to me to continue playing tennis, I probably wouldn’t be playing right now. But I’m definitely one of those people who likes to finish things I’ve started.”

Swiatek’s father, former Olympic rower Tomasz Swiatek, is still involved in her career, hosting a WTA tournament in Warsaw later this year. Her parents are divorced. Her mother, an orthodontist, is ‘not in the picture’, according to Abramowicz.

Swiatek, whose career price has just passed $9 million, has bought a small apartment in Warsaw but still lives in the family home in the suburb of Raszyn.

Her road trips have been very successful lately, as Swiatek, tight against the baseline, imposes her rhythm and shrinks the open space: walking briskly between points and setting a scorching pace once the points kick in.

Her confidence in her aggressive Plan A is palpable. This full-court press is designed like this: part of the plan recommended by Wiktorowski, who previously worked with Agnieszka Radwaska, a former world No. 2, and Wimbledon finalist who retired in 2018.

Wiktorowski joined Swiatek in December during the off-season after a five-year break-up with her coach, Piotr Sierzputowski. Wiktorowski has emphasized the positive, which became apparent when she watched videos of her matches. Swiatek wanted to see defeats to learn from her mistakes. He insisted on looking at wins too to focus on her strengths.

“This kind of attitude helped me believe that I can be more aggressive on the pitch and actually use the strengths I have,” she said, “before I wanted to analyze more how my opponent played and adapt to it. But this year I want to be more proactive, I want to lead.”

Radwanska, a trick-shot performer nicknamed The Magician, was the most successful modern Polish player until Swiatek, but “Aga” was an underpowered counterpuncher compared to “Iga,” whose signature shot is her explosive inside-out forehand, a clubbing hit with heavy topspin.

Swiatek believes in her work and that she has “good genes” because of her Olympic father. “I feel like my body was made for sports,” she said.

She and Ryszczuk are not taking any chances. She doesn’t run off the field to limit the pounding on her legs, and uses stationary bikes for cardio work.

“The most important thing is to keep her safe, strong and healthy,” he said.

It’s a long-term plan for a long-term planner, who makes good use of her Google Calendar and likes to keep track of not only her pranks, but her business as well.

“I’ve read so many deals in the last 18 months, so many contracts,” she said. “I’ve heard some stories about players who aren’t really responsible in that part of life. I also made some mistakes when I was younger in terms of signing things. So right now I’m reading everything.”

She also wins everything, and certainly not by accident. On Thursday, three days before this French Open started, she was on the phone outside the main stadium as Abramowicz watched her from a distant bench.

“It’s the last day for business calls,” Abramowicz explained. “Then it’s time to close that drawer and open another.”

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