Iga Swiatek’s plan is falling into place

PARIS — Iga Swiatek, undefeated since February, was sitting in the players’ restaurant at the French Open and twisting her head left and right at breakneck speed, her eyes comically wide as she ran from side to side.

This was his impression of his former self.

“I remember a time when I could only concentrate for 40 minutes and suddenly my head felt like a pigeon,” Swiatek said in an interview. “I was looking everywhere, but where should I be looking.”

Your gaze and your game are much more stable now. After winning the 2020 French Open out of nowhere and off-season in October as a teenager, she is back in Paris this spring as a dominant and increasingly intimidating world number one.

At 20, it’s as if she’s grasped – in Jedi Knight style – all the powers at her disposal.

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

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

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

“When I see the ranking next to my name, it’s still pretty surreal,” said Swiatek, Poland’s first No. 1 singles on any tour.

Is she walking taller now as she roams the lawns and dressing rooms of Roland Garros and slaps the hands of her idol, 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, on the practice courts?

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

Part of Swiatek’s newfound dominance is no doubt due to the astonishing abdication of Ashleigh Barty, the Australian star with the full game who suddenly retired in March at age 25 while occupying the top spot just after winning the Australian Open. Barty went 2-0 against Swiatek and defeated them in January in a tournament in Adelaide, Australia: one of Swiatek’s only three defeats this season.

But Swiatek, one of the fastest and most acrobatic athletes in women’s football, was already gaining steam with Tomasz Wiktorowski, her new coach, before Barty’s retirement. With a drive for self-improvement and world travel and a long-term plan to avoid injury and boredom, Swiatek seems equipped to be a champion with staying power in the women’s game, where the biggest stars (the Williams and Osaka sisters) aren’t. more top players and where many new stars have dropped or, in Barty’s case, walked away altogether.

“You have to remember that you want to do this for many years on tour,” Swiatek said. “You can’t get burned.”

Swiatek, who calls himself a perfectionist, and his team recognize that this trait cuts two paths in a sport where perfection is impossible. It can break players as they mourn the inevitable mistakes, but it can also fuel a deep inner drive.

Swiatek is well aware of the downside, which is in part why she has worked with psychologists since her junior career. She still has her struggles. At the WTA Finals last November in Guadalajara, Mexico, in her final match of the season, she burst into tears on the court during the final stages of her round-robin loss to Maria Sakkari.

“I felt like I was getting more tired every month and for sure in Guadalajara that was definitely the peak moment for me where I just didn’t have the drums to control my emotions,” she said.

With the aim of conserving battery power, it seeks work-life balance, which means reducing doubles matches and adding more tourist time in the cities it visits after all the pandemic restrictions and exclusive bubbles of tournaments. 2020 and 2021. In 2020 and 2021. Rome this month, on her way to her latest title, she visited the Colosseum and made two visits to the Vatican.

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

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

“It’s much, much easier for me to trust someone who is really around me all the time,” she said.

Abramowicz, 35, is a constant companion at tournament venues, closely monitoring Swiatek’s mindset and energy levels. She is pushing Swiatek to keep its answers shorter at press conferences to save energy. She even made sure Swiatek didn’t read the end of the Gone With the Wind novel the same day she had a match to avoid emotionally draining her.

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

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

“In the beginning, everything that was sneakers was in a drawer and things that weren’t sneakers were in a drawer,” Abramowicz said.

But they expanded the concept and even used it to break up matches into more manageable parts.

To increase Swiatek’s ability to play in the zone, they use various brain training tools and technology. But they also used more classic methods: visualization and breathing exercises, which Swiatek sometimes does in exchanges with a towel wrapped around his head.

For those used to seeing Swiatek on the court, where she plays in a cap with her ponytail hanging down her back, it’s a little unusual to be in her presence without a hat with her wide-eyed gaze and her shoulder-length dark hair framing her face.

“I can’t measure her intelligence, but she’s curious, and I think that’s the way to be smart,” said Maciej Ryszczuk, Swiatek’s physical trainer and physical therapist. “If she doesn’t know something, she’s asking and if not, she’s reading about it.”

Although Swiatek calls herself shy and gets drained from too much socializing, she’s easy company. She is insightful, even in her second language, English. She can make a joke; she deflects or rejects outright praise and exchanges book recommendations as readily as groundstrokes, even if book titles, unlike tennis titles, sometimes elude her.

For her 20th birthday, her management team gave her 20 books, all in Polish, because for Swiatek to read in English, despite her fluency in the language, she still wants to study. “I’m always writing words I don’t know,” she said.

The subjects of the 20 books ranged widely: from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to Linda Polman’s “The Crisis Caravan” to Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”.

“Sometimes I feel weird when I haven’t read for a few days,” Swiatek said. “Because I feel like, ah, this is a sign 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,” in which he writes about loving the game after hating it.

Where is she on this scale?

“Hey, hey, hey, this is hard,” she said, sounding, as she always does, like she was about to laugh without transitioning into laughter.

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

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

Swiatek, whose career prize just surpassed $9 million, bought a small apartment in Warsaw but still lives in the family home in the suburbs of Raszyn.

His road trips have been very successful lately, as Swiatek, tight at the baseline, imposes her pace and shrinks the open space: walking briskly between the points and setting a torrid pace when the points begin.

His confidence in his aggressive Plan A is palpable. That full-court pressure is planned: part of the plan recommended by Witkorowski, who previously worked with Agnieszka Radwanska, a former world number two and Wimbledon finalist who retired in 2018.

Witkorowski joined Swiatek in December during the off-season after she parted ways with Piotr Sierzputowski, her coach for five years. Witkorowski emphasized the positive, which became clear when they watched videos of her matches. Swiatek wanted to watch defeats to learn from his mistakes. He insisted on watching wins as well to focus on his strengths.

“That kind of attitude helped me believe that I can be more aggressive on the court and really use the strengths I have,” she said, “Before I analyzed how my opponent was playing and adjusted to that. But this year I want to be more proactive. I want to lead.”

Radwanska, a trick-shot artist nicknamed The Magician, was the most successful modern Polish player until Swiatek, but “Aga” was a weak counter-attack compared to “Iga”, whose signature move is her explosive forehand from the inside. out, a blunt blow. which features 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 to be involved in sports,” she said.

She and Ryszczuk aren’t taking any chances. She doesn’t run off the court to limit her leg kicks, using stationary bikes for cardio work.

“The main 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 their Google calendar and likes to keep track of not only their traits but their business as well.

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

She’s winning it all too, and certainly not coincidentally. On Thursday, two days before the start of this French Open, she was talking on the phone outside the main stadium as Abramowicz watched her from a bench in the distance.

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

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