Iga Swiatek’s plan works

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Iga Swiatek's plan works

PARIS — Iga Swiatek, unbeaten since February, sat in the players’ restaurant at the French Open and swiveled her head left and right 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 about 40 minutes and suddenly my head was like a dove,” Swiatek said in an interview. “I’ve looked everywhere but where I should have looked.”

Her gaze and play are pretty stable now. After winning the 2020 French Open out of the blue and off-season in October as an unseeded teenager, she returns to Paris this spring as the dominating and increasingly intimidating world No. 1.

At the age of 20, it’s like she’s grasped – in Jedi Knight fashion – the full power at her disposal.

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

Swiatek, who took first place in women’s singles on April 3, has won five tournaments in a row: three on hard courts and two on clay. She has won 29 straight singles games, the longest streak in nine years on the WTA Tour, often dominated by one-sided, in-the-zone margins that have fans joking that they enjoy baking because of all the bagels must have (sets won 6-0) and Baguettes (sets won 6-1).

She defeated Naomi Osaka, the most famous player of her generation, 6-4, 6-0 in the Miami Open 0 final, 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 singles No. 1 from Poland on both tours.

Does she now walk more upright as she moves around the grounds and in the Roland Garros locker rooms and slaps her idol, 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, on the practice courts?

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

Part of Swiatek’s newfound dominance is no doubt due to the surprise resignation of Ashleigh Barty, the full-game Australian star who abruptly resigned in March aged 25 while he was No. 1 shortly after winning the Australian Open ranked. Barty drew 2-0 with Swiatek and defeated them at a tournament in Adelaide, Australia in January: one of just three losses for Swiatek this season.

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

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

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Swiatek and her team recognize that trait is a double-edged sword in a sport where perfection is impossible. It can break players down as they lament the inevitable mistakes, but it can also fuel a deep inner drive.

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

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

With battery conservation in mind, she’s aiming for a work-life balance, which means playing less doubles and adding more tourist time in the cities she’s heading to after all the pandemic restrictions and pure tournament bubbles of 2020 and 2021 her latest title in Rome, she visited the Colosseum this month and paid two visits to the Vatican.

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

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

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

Abramowicz, 35, is a constant companion at tournament venues and keeps a close eye on Swiatek’s mindset and energy levels. She urges Swiatek to keep her answers shorter in press conferences to save energy. She even made sure Swiatek didn’t read the end of the novel Gone With the Wind on the same day she had a match to avoid emotionally exhausting her.

Abramowicz wants to create a sanctuary for Swiatek through her routine and support system. “No matter how much storm there is around us, there is always one eye of the hurricane that needs to be calm; that core that always has to be the same,” she said.

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

“At first everything that was tennis was in a drawer and non-tennis stuff was in a drawer,” Abramowicz said.

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

To increase Swiatek’s ability to play in the zone, they use various brain training tools and technologies. But they also used more classic methods: visualization and breathing exercises that Swiatek sometimes does with a towel over his head when changing.

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

“I can’t measure her smartness, but she’s curious and I think that’s the way to be smart,” said Maciej Ryszczuk, Swiatek’s fitness trainer and physiotherapist. “If she doesn’t know something, she asks, and if she doesn’t, she reads about it.”

Although Swiatek describes herself as shy and drained from too much socializing, she is pleasant company. She is quick-witted, even in her second language, English. She can joke; she shrugs off compliments or flatly rejects them, and exchanges book recommendations as readily as groundstrokes, though book titles, unlike tennis titles, sometimes escape her attention.

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

The 20 books covered a wide range of topics: from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Linda Polman’s “The Crisis Caravan” to Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”.

“Sometimes I 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 her birthday package didn’t include any tennis books, she has read Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open twice, in which he writes about how he loves the game after hating it.

Where is she on this scale?

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s a tough question,” she said, sounding, as she often does, like she was about to laugh without breaking into laughter.

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

Swiatek’s father, former Olympic rower Tomasz Swiatek, is still involved in her career and is organizing a WTA tournament in Warsaw later this year. Her parents are divorced. Her mother, an orthodontist, is “out of the picture,” according to Abramowicz.

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

Her road trips have been very successful lately as Swiatek, close to the baseline, sets her rhythm and narrows the open space: she briskly bounces between points and sets a blistering pace once the points start.

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

Witkorowski joined Swiatek in the off-season in December after parting ways with Piotr Sierzputowski, her coach for five years. Witkorowski has emphasized the positives, which became apparent when they watched videos of their matches. Swiatek wanted to look at defeats to learn from their mistakes. He insisted on also looking at victories to focus on their strengths.

“That kind of attitude helped me to believe that I can be more aggressive on the pitch and actually use my strengths,” she said, “before that I was more analyzing how my opponent was playing and adjusting to that. But this year I want to be more active. 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 loser compared to ‘Iga’, whose signature shot is her explosive inside-out forehand bludgeoning shot, a too weak counterpuncher with strong 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 exercise,” she said.

You and Ryszczuk aren’t taking any chances. She doesn’t run off the court to limit her leg pounding and uses stationary bikes for cardio exercise.

“The most important thing is that she stays 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 keeps a handle on not only her shots, but her business as well.

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

She wins everything too, and certainly not by accident. On Thursday, three days before the start of this French Open, she was on the phone outside the main stadium while Abramowicz watched her from afar from a bench.

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

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