Iga Świątek isn’t a name that rolls off the tongue. But it’s one all tennis fans should get to know.
The Polish teen came from the clouds to win the 2020 French Open in dominant fashion. This year she’s showing that victory was no fluke. Her title run in Rome last week, including a crushing win over Karolína Plíšková in the final, means she will be among the favorites to defend her title at Roland Garros later this month.
In September 2020, 19-year-old Świątek was ranked 54th in the world and had never been past the fourth round at a grand slam or WTA 1000 event in her career. Leading into the rescheduled French Open, she’d been beaten by qualifier Arantxa Rus in the first round of the Italian Open in Rome.
All the more surprising then, when she embarked on one of the most dominant grand slam title runs in the Open Era in Paris. Across seven matches she lost just 28 games and never looked like dropping a set. That tally is the fewest games conceded on the way to the title at Roland Garros since another teenage sensation – Steffi Graf – burst onto the scene in 1988, losing just 20 games as she lifted the trophy. Świątek’s win also made her the youngest women’s singles champion since Monica Seles in 1992.
The big question after her display in Paris was whether she could back it up and become one of the world’s top players, or whether she would simply be a flash in the pan.
On the evidence of 2021 so far, it would seem the sky is the limit. She started her season in Melbourne, losing to world number two Simona Halep in the fourth round of the Australian Open. The following week she lifted the second title of her career at the Adelaide International, this time dropping 22 games in her five matches – still the most commanding title run of the 2021 season so far.
Big things were expected from Świątek as the tour moved to European clay, but she couldn’t overcome a red-hot Ash Barty at the Madrid Open.
Things had come easily for her in her triumphs in Paris and Adelaide, but in the early rounds in Rome this week it was anything but. She trailed Alison Riske 1-4 in the first set before the American withdrew with injury and had to save a trio of set points in her win over Madison Keys. She found herself on the verge of elimination in the third round, facing match points against Barbora Krejčíková. She would eventually overcome the Czech 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 7-5 in a match which lasted nearly three hours, but it was hardly title-winning form.
“Actually, it’s a good way to call it like two phases of the tournament,” Świątek said afterwards. “At the beginning it was really, really hard. I actually wasn’t thinking that it’s gonna be enough – I’m not talking about winning the tournament – to even do a good result. But day after day I was feeling a little bit better and I just focused on that. I had good people around me that were telling me not to really worry and that sometimes it’s the best idea not to care.”
The improvement was stark as a free-flowing Świątek stormed through the later rounds, knocking out world number six Elina Svitolina, and another teenage star Cori Gauff, on her way to the final.
Plíšková awaited in the showpiece: the world number 10 reaching the decider in Rome for a third-straight year. But if Świątek was expecting a stern challenge from the Czech, it didn’t come.
The pair were on court at the Foro Italico for just 46 minutes as Świątek raced through to deliver the dreaded ‘double bagel’ – losing just 13 points in her 6-0, 6-0 victory. It was a record-breaking performance on a number of levels: the shortest completed WTA final since Istanbul in 2009, the first double bagel to decide the title in Rome and the first in any WTA final since Simona Halep routed Anastasija Sevastova in Bucharest in 2016.
“When my coach told me it was 6-0, 6-0, I was, like, really? Isn’t that a mistake?” she said afterwards. “When I was on the breaks, I was visualising that I’m starting that match from the beginning every time. Actually, I did that so well that I didn’t even know that it was 6-0 in the first set… The key is just to not to think about it and just play. Because when you’re going to think about the score, you can actually ruin your mindset and ruin your attitude.”
The final was a complete domination from start to finish. Świątek dropped just four points as she blasted through the first set. The second was closer by comparison, losing nine. That tally of 13 points lost broke another record, bettering Serena Williams’ mark of 24 points conceded in a 1000-level final, against Carla Suárez Navarro from the 2015 Miami Open.
Plíšková had no answer for Świątek’s aggression and ruthless shot making – the numbers from the final demonstrate as comprehensive a defeat as you could imagine. The Pole hit 17 winners and just five unforced errors for the match for a +12 differential. Plíšková on the other hand went -18 with five winners and 23 errors, including six double faults in the match. Świątek barely broke a sweat as she claimed the third title of her short career.
2021 WTA Race to Shenzhen Standings:
|1||Ashleigh Barty (AUS)||8||3||3,331|
|2||Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)||9||2||2,527|
|3||Naomi Osaka (JPN)||5||1||2,466|
|4||Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP)||9||1||2,085|
|5||Iga Świątek (POL)||7||2||1,955|
|6||Jennifer Brady (USA)||8||0||1,678|
Only two other players this season have come from match points down to win a title: world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in Miami and No. 2 Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open. Now the holder of two of the big three titles on clay, Świątek can expect the comparisons to continue. Her victory in Rome has seen her break into the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time, and she’s moved up to fifth in the Race to Shenzhen standings.
“It is pretty crazy and I’m really proud of myself that I’m actually starting to be more consistent, because that was my goal from the beginning,” she said. “Actually, I feel right now that I am doing huge progress in that matter. I’m really proud that I’m going to have in my resume that I’m top 10, because I always wanted that. Yeah, I also want to be consistent. So right now our goal is to keep me in that place and go further.”
How much further depends on how Świątek handles the pressure of life at the top. It’s one thing to fly under the radar and claim a surprise victory. It’s another thing entirely to deal with the expectation of being the defending champion and bookmakers’ favorite – something she will experience for the first time at Roland Garros later this month.
Świątek has shown she has the on-court attributes to mix it with the best. How she stands up to the spotlight in Paris will prove if she has the mental strength to match.
Design by Matt Sisneros.