Following the retirement of Ashleigh Barty, Iga Świątek could have been seen as the world number 1 by default. But she needed to earn her stripes. And since February, the Pole has crushed the women’s circuit to arrive on clay, her favourite surface, more confident than ever – with the inherent pressure that comes with being favourite and nerves strong enough to handle it.

Cardboard box under her arm, Ashleigh Barty, WTA no. 1, has left the office. Without leaving anything behind and asking to be removed from the world ranking, which she topped. A position now taken over by Iga Świątek. The new women’s no. 1, the 20-year-old young asserted her authority as soon as she took up the job, just to show that she has qualities that make her much more than a simple stand-in. In Miami, following Barty’s announcement, the Pole only needed to successfully enter the running to be sure of becoming the first of her compatriots – of either sex – to become world singles number 1. Despite the pressure, she sailed through, crushing poor Viktorija Golubic, 6/2 6/0. 

For the last couple of days, I felt a little bit more pressure,” she admitted in a press conference after the meeting. “This has been more stressful than usual, but I’m pretty happy that I handled it really well and I could show my best tennis today. It’s proof for myself that I can handle that.” The Warsaw native went on to confirm this by winning the tournament. Already crowned in Indian Wells before her arrival in Florida, she became the fourth – and youngest – player in history to achieve the “Sunshine Double” (Indian Wells and Miami), after Steffi Graf (1994, 1996), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Victoria Azarenka (2016).

 

 

“Talking to Daria (Abramowicz, her sports psychologist) helps me a lot” – Iga Świątek

Unbeaten in 17 games, she picked up three consecutive WTA 1000 trophies (Doha, Indian Wells and Miami). No player had previously begun a season by winning the three initial tournaments in this category. As well as her technical and physical qualities, her ability to achieve all these feats is also down to her capacity to manage her emotions in important moments. Following her first final on the main circuit, lost in three rounds in Lugano in April 2019, she went on to triumph in the next six, inflicting crushing defeats on all of the most formidable opponents on the circuit.

  • 6/4 6/0 vs Osaka Miami 2022
  • 6/4 6/1 vs Sakkari – Indian Wells 2022
  • 6/2 6/0 vs Kontaveit – Doha 2022
  • 6/0 6/0 vs Plíšková – Rome 2021
  • 6/2 6/2 vs Bencic, Adelaide – 2021
  • 6/4 6/1 vs Kenin, French Open – 2020

Her ability to master her handling of the toughest encounters is also down to Daria Abramowicz. In February 2019, three months before Świątek turned 18, her team put her in touch with her fellow Pole, who specialises in sports and performance psychology in addition to clinical psychology. “Talking to Daria helped a lot because I feel I don’t have to keep all these emotions inside,” she said after her win over Golubic. “It was the first time, before a tournament, that people were so excited about me (due to the world number one spot being in sight). I always try to remind myself in times like this that it's not a coincidence, that I've worked hard and have the skills and abilities to be in that place.

“My coach has a plan for me” – Iga Świątek

To get there, she was also able to rely on “the experience of [her new] coach.” In December 2021, Świątek took a difficult but important decision. “Sometimes in our professional lives we need changes,” she explained at the time. In order to further evolve, to meet other people for the next stages of our development.” After five years working together and a win at the Paris Open in 2020, it was time to say goodbye to Piotr Sierzputowski and hello to Tomasz Wiktorowski. As coach to Agnieszka Radwańska from 2011 to 2019, Wiktorowski helped her to establish herself as the best player in her country’s history – before Świątek emerged.

“I don’t know where my limit is,” said Świątek after the Miami final. “My coach has a plan for me, for sure, and I still have some shots where I could feel more comfortable on court. You should never stop working, because other people never stop training and improving.” As an example of Świątek-Wiktorowski’s joint ambition, one of their objectives from the outset was to challenge Barty’s supremacy. “I have always admired Ash (Barty) and I still admire her. We will miss her,” said the Pole at a press conference last week. “For sure winning against Ash someday would have been something very special for me.

“On clay, the adaptation is quite easy” – Iga Świątek

Świątek had even dedicated part of her training to the specifics of the Australian’s game, having been beaten by her both times they met. “I wanted (to beat her). It was really motivating me. I even spent two weeks of my off-season training against slices (backhand, one of Barty’s strengths, a rare shot on the women’s circuit),” she said. “But there are plenty of other very strong players, we won’t be bored.” Under Wiktorowski’s guidance, the new queen of tennis continued her progress on hard court, a surface on which four of her six titles have now been won. And the move to clay, where she picked up her other two trophies, should allow her to add even more to her list.

On clay, her aggressive lift – which she adopted very young, to be, she admits, “like Rafa (Nadal)”, her idol – is known for wreaking havoc. On the crushed brick surface, she has always felt like a fish in water. “I still have to work on the transition between surfaces, especially switching to grass then to a fast hard court,” she explained. “But on clay, the adaptation is quite easy.” Does that already make her the favourite for the French Open? “I don't want to put myself in that position,” she replied. “I’ll leave that to you (the journalists). I feel confident. I still have a little more motivation before Roland-Garros. I’ll work hard and we will see the result.” If she does take the crown, Iga Świątek could well see herself with a long-term job at the head of women’s tennis.