Iga Swiatek’s plan falls into place

PARIS — Iga Swiatek, unbeaten since February, sat in the players’ restaurant at Roland Garros and tossed her head right and left at high speed, her eyes wide comically as they paced back and forth.

It was her impression of herself.

“I remember a time when I was only able to concentrate for about 40 minutes and suddenly my head was like a pigeon,” Swiatek said in an interview. “I was looking everywhere but where I should have been looking.”

His gaze and acting are now more stable. After winning the French Open in 2020 out of the blue and out of season in October as an unranked teenager, she is back in Paris this year in the spring as a dominant and growing world No. intimidating.

At 20, it’s as if she’s grasped – like a Jedi knight – all the powers she has.

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

Swiatek, who rose to the top of the women’s singles rankings on April 3, has won five straight tournaments: three on hard courts and two on clay. She has won 29 consecutive singles matches, the longest streak in nine years on the WTA Tour, often winning by lopsided margins and in the zone that have fans joking that she must love cooking because of all bagels (sets won 6-0) and baguettes (sets won 6-1).

She beat 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, routing the qualifier Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in just 54 minutes in the first round of Roland-Garros.

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

Does she walk higher now as she wanders the grounds and locker rooms of Roland Garros and claps with her idol, 13-time Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal, on the training grounds?

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

Part of Swiatek’s newfound dominance is no doubt due to the surprise abdication of Ashleigh Barty, the all-game Australian star who suddenly retired in March aged 25 despite holding the No.1 ranking. shortly after winning the Australian Open. Barty was 2-0 against Swiatek and beat it in January at a tournament in Adelaide, Australia: one of only three losses for Swiatek this season.

But Swiatek, one of the fastest and most acrobatic athletes in women’s football, was already gaining momentum under her new coach Tomasz Wiktorowski before Barty’s retirement. With a yen for self-improvement and world travel and a long-term plan to avoid injury and boredom, Swiatek seems equipped to be a champion with stamina in the women’s game where the biggest stars (the sisters Williams and Osaka) are no longer top players and where too many new stars have fallen apart or, in Barty’s case, drifted away altogether.

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

Swiatek, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, and her team recognize that this trait goes both ways in a sport where perfection is impossible. It can break players as they lament the inevitable mistakes, but it can also fuel a deep internal drive.

Swiatek is well aware of the downsides, which is part of why she’s worked with psychologists since her junior career. She still has her battles. At the WTA Finals last November in Guadalajara, Mexico, in her final match of the season, she began to cry on the court in the closing stages of her round robin loss to Maria Sakkari.

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

Mindful of saving battery power, she aims for work-life balance, which means reducing double play and adding more sightseeing time in the cities she visits after all the pandemic restrictions and the bubbles reserved for the 2020 and 2021 tournaments. Rome this month, en route 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, his 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 office visits to 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 sites, keeping a close eye on Swiatek’s mood and energy levels. She urges Swiatek to keep his answers shorter during press conferences to save energy. She even made sure that Swiatek didn’t read the end of the novel “Gone with the Wind” on the same day she had a match to avoid draining her emotionally.

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

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

“In the beginning, everything tennis was in a drawer and the non-tennis stuff was in a drawer,” Abramowicz said.

But they’ve expanded the concept and even use it to break matches 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 traditional methods: visualization and breathing exercises, which Swiatek sometimes does during change with a towel draped over the head.

For those used to seeing Swiatek on the pitch, where she plays in a cap with her ponytail down her back, it’s a novelty to be in her presence hatless with her shoulder-length black hair framing her face. . She has an open gaze.

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

Although Swiatek calls herself shy and exhausted from too much socializing, she is easy company. She is quick-witted, even in her second language, English. She can crack a joke; she deflects or outright rejects compliments and trades book recommendations as readily as groundstrokes even if book titles, unlike tennis titles, sometimes elude her.

For his 20th birthday, his management team gave him 20 books, all in Polish, because for Swiatek, reading a long form in English, despite his mastery of the language, still feels like studying. “I always write words that I don’t know,” she says.

The subjects of the 20 books were very varied: from “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell to “The Crisis Caravan” by Linda Polman via “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert.

“I feel weird sometimes when I don’t read for a few days,” Swiatek said. “Because I feel like, Oh, it’s a signal that I don’t have the balance in my life that I should have.”

Although there are no tennis books in her birthday package, she has twice read Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘Open’, in which he writes that he learned to love 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 transitioning into laughter.

“It’s a love and hate relationship for sure,” she said of tennis. “I’m not the kind of person who fell in love with it the first time. I realize that if my dad hadn’t been so persistent and encouraging that I keep playing tennis, I probably wouldn’t be playing right now. But of course, I’m that kind of person who likes to finish the things I 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. His parents are divorced. Her mother, an orthodontist, is “not in the picture,” according to Abramowicz.

Swiatek, whose career price just topped $9 million, bought a small apartment in Warsaw but still lives in the family home in suburban Raszyn.

His road trips have been very successful of late as Swiatek, tight at the baseline, imposes his pace and narrows the open space: walking briskly between points and imposing a scorching pace once the points begin.

His confidence in his aggressive Plan A is palpable. This all-court press is by design: part of the plan recommended by Witkorowski, who previously worked with Agnieszka Radwanska, a former world No. 2 and Wimbledon runner-up who retired in 2018.

Witkorowski joined Swiatek in December during the offseason after his split from Piotr Sierzputowski, his coach for five years. Witkorowski emphasized the positive, which became clear by watching videos of his matches. Swiatek wanted to watch the losses to learn from his mistakes. He also insisted on watching wins to focus on his strengths.

“That kind of attitude helped me believe that I could be more aggressive on the pitch and use my strengths,” she said. “Before, I was more like analyzing how my opponent was playing and adapting to it. 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 an underpowered counter-puncher compared to ‘Iga’, whose signature move is his explosive upside-down forehand, a blunt blow that features a strong topspin.

Swiatek believes in her work and that she has “good genes” because of her Olympian father. “I feel like my body was made to be involved in sports,” she said.

She and Ryszczuk are taking no chances. She does not run away from the field in order to limit the blows on her legs, using exercise bikes for cardio work.

“The main thing is to keep her safe, strong and healthy,” he said.

This is a long-term plan for a long-term planner, who makes good use of her Google calendar and likes to control not only her strokes but also her business.

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

She also wins, and surely not by chance. On Thursday, three days before the start of this French Open, she was talking on the phone outside the main stadium while Abramowicz watched her from a distance bench.

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

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