Iga Swiatek may have reached world No. 1 in the most surprising fashion following Ashleigh Barty’s retirement at the age of 25, but it is no surprise to see her now sit at the top of the women’s game. Swiatek’s talent was clear when she swept to the 2020 French Open title without dropping a set. “It feels like I’m watching Rafael Nadal,” said former world No. 1 Mats Wilander on Eurosport, who predicted that Swiatek would win “so many more” majors.
Those may well follow, but reaching world No.1 is another sign that Swiatek is the real deal.
It seems fitting that Swiatek should be the one to take over from Barty, considering the glowing respect between the pair. Barty described Swiatek as “exceptional” after their first meeting in Madrid last year. After announcing her retirement she said there would be “no better person” to take over from her as world No.1. “She’s an incredible person, a great tennis player. The way that she’s brought this fresh, fearless energy onto the court has been incredible.”
Barty is only five years older than Swiatek, yet seemed a huge inspiration. Swiatek referenced Barty at the 2021 US Open as the benchmark for women’s tennis – “the best kind of consistency is when you can win, like, five titles a year…so right now I’m looking at the results that Ash has” – and just last week at Indian Wells she brought up Barty. “When she feels like the match is really tight, she treats it like a great experience because she can find solutions, actually be focused on that. That’s why she’s the best. It’s a pretty healthy mindset.”
Had Barty not retired, her rivalry with Swiatek would almost certainly have developed into one of the best on the WTA Tour in recent years.
One wonders whether Swiatek would have had her breakthrough moment at the 2020 French Open if Barty had decided to defend her title rather than remain in Australia. Given Swiatek’s devastating form at the tournament there’s a chance she may have blown Barty away too. Her powerful hitting and unwavering composure throughout the two weeks in autumnal Paris was remarkable. Even in the final against Sofia Kenin, which she afterwards described as “really stressful”, Swiatek didn’t falter, wrapping it up in straight sets to continue her run of not having lost more than five games in any match.
While pundits and former players almost unanimously agreed that more Grand Slam titles were in Swiatek’s future, she saw room for improvement.
“I think the biggest change for me is going to be to be consistent. I think this is what women’s tennis is struggling with. That’s why we have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not, like, as consistent as Rafa [Nadal], Roger [Federer], and Novak [Djokovic].”
Consistency was arguably the theme of Swiatek’s 2021 season. There weren’t any more major wins, but there were two titles in Adelaide and Rome, and she was the only woman to reach the second week of all four Slams. That high-level and immediate consistency stands out from a lot of other surprise first-time Slam winners.
Jelena Ostapenko has only recently shown some signs of consistency after her shock run to the French Open title in 2017. Sloane Stephens has been anything but consistent after winning the 2017 US Open and Bianca Andreescu has struggled since lifting the US Open in 2019. Sofia Kenin has not backed up her Australian Open win in 2020 while Emma Raducanu has also not yet been able to consistently repeat the performances that led her to victory in New York last summer.
It’s a challenge, which Swiatek acknowledged and took on. It was perhaps surprising that after such a solid 2020 season Swiatek decided to end her five-year spell with coach Piotr Sierzputowski, but the move to join up with Agnieszka Radwanska’s former coach Tomasz Wiktorowski seems to be paying off so far. Swiatek said hiring Wiktorowski gives her “comfort and stability” due to the years he has spent on the tour, and has also spoken about using the “experience of other players” to help her improve.
As well as Wiktorowski, Swiatek continues to travel with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz. The pair have been together for several years and Abramowicz has played a crucial role in Swiatek’s development. At Indian Wells this month, Abramowicz spoke about two key words they are working on this season: “One is to prevail, the other is to adjust.”
Swiatek seems to be mastering both so far. She has adjusted to challenges, as demonstrated by her rising number of comeback wins – five from a set down this season compared to four in 2020 and 2021 combined – and has prevailed more times than any other player on tour this year (21).
She will take over top spot on the back of a 12-match winning streak after consecutive WTA 1000 titles in Doha and Indian Wells. She has also made the semi-finals of the Australian Open and Adelaide International, and becomes the 10th youngest No.1 in history. If she wins the Miami Open she will also be only the third player this century to win three WTA 100 tournaments in a row after Serena Williams (Miami, Madrid, Rome and Canada in 2013) and Martina Hingis (Canada, Moscow and Zurich in 2000).
Kim Clijsters was also 20 when she first reached world No.1 in 2003 and says she sees the necessary qualities and “drive” in Swiatek.
“To see Iga grow as a tennis player, it has been so beautiful for me,” Clijsters told the WTA.
“There’s a certain type of focus that is on tennis, and tennis only. There’s a drive there that I admire very much – a drive that I recognise.
“She’s had great results in the past, but she still wants to improve. We’ve seen others that kind of take a step back and say, ‘Oh, I’ve won a Slam now, I’ve made it. There’s sponsors coming in and I get treated like a princess wherever I go.’
“Just because you’re the No. 1 player and have won Slams, doesn’t mean you should treat other people differently. I feel like Ash Barty did that amazingly, and I think Iga has that focus, too. There’s a still a lot of respect for the other people around her.”
Swiatek’s focus was on show on Friday as she secured the world No. 1 spot with a 6-2 6-0 win over Viktorija Golubic. It was a statement win, a clinical performance that left little doubt that she is ready to take over top spot from Barty. And there may be many more wins like it to come.