Iga Swiatek a clay-court phenomenon to rival Rafael Nadal

Iga Swiatek – Iga Swiatek a clay-court phenomenon to rival Rafael Nadal
Iga Swiatek has already won three French Opens - Getty Images/Mike Hewitt

At the northern end of Roland Garros stands a modernist statue of Rafael Nadal, fashioned from stainless steel. In 10 years’ time, will there be a matching Iga Swiatek beside it?

Like her idol Nadal, Swiatek is a clay-court phenomenon. At just 22, she has already won three French Opens, only one shy of his tally at the same age.

This week Swiatek returns to Paris to continue her relentless pursuit of titles. She comes in on a 12-match winning streak, having just become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2013 to lift the Madrid and Rome trophies back to back.

Her dominance is such that bookmakers are going odds-on on a fourth Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. So, what makes Swiatek such an irresistible force?

Clay-court specialisation

Ever heard of the Magnus effect? This is the quirk of physics that David Beckham employed to bend his famous free-kicks. Put simply, a spinning ball swerves in the direction of its spin.

In professional tennis, the Magnus effect normally makes a groundstroke dip down in its flight. The more rotations you exert, the more you neutralise the obstacle of the net. And Swiatek makes the ball spin like a weathervane in a storm.

Using an extreme grip, Swiatek bullies the ball with the broad shoulders she inherited from her father, a rower who competed at the Seoul Olympics. The result is rally shots that follow the same dive-bombing, steeply bouncing shape as her hero Nadal’s. And then, when she sees an opening, she will hit harder and flatter, sending her missiles scudding through the court.

In recent weeks, Swiatek has outpunched every opponent, including world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the finals of both Madrid and Rome.

Also on the wrong end in both events was the former US Open finalist Madison Keys, who lost 6-1, 6-3 on each occasion.

“Every single ball was basically an inch from the line,” said Keys. “She does such a great job at taking the ball early and it comes back so quickly that you start feeling rushed.”

Keys also mentioned Swiatek’s sliding movement, which leaves her so well-balanced at the conclusion of each shot that it is almost impossible to wrong-foot her. “She makes you feel like you have to start hitting these incredible shots from all over the court. She puts you in a bad position, where you start going for things that you shouldn’t.”

On the red stuff, the various elements of Swiatek’s armoury have made her virtually bulletproof. Just look at her win percentage, which stands at a mighty 88 per cent, not far short of Nadal’s 91. In both cases, beating these clay-court champions at Roland Garros (at least, when they are fully fit) is the greatest challenge in the sport.

Relentless commitment

After Swiatek won Madrid, ticking off the last missing clay-court title on her CV, she received an insightful compliment from former world No 1 Andy Roddick.

“There is a talent in the ability to be and stay disciplined,” said Roddick, as he recorded his entertaining new podcast Served. “That is her superpower.”

Roddick’s comment reflected the fact that Swiatek is not as spectacular a ball-striker as Belarusian Sabalenka. Nor does she have a knockout serve like Elena Rybakina, the Kazakh who holds a 4-2 lead over Swiatek in their head-to-head meetings.

Still, even if Swiatek might be less physically imposing than her Eastern European rivals, she does the invisible things well: footwork, physical conditioning, tactical acuity. Almost uniquely on the WTA Tour, she is a player who never seems to beat herself.

In an age when we have lost so many charismatic champions to ennui and exhaustion (think of Ashleigh Barty, Garbine Muguruza and – from time to time – Naomi Osaka), Swiatek’s resilience marks her out. She is a high-mileage, high-motivation competitor: someone who keeps fist-pumping and exhorting herself, even on a cold night in Ostrava.

As Roddick observes, Swiatek’s ability to stay professional every day has lifted her into the most elevated company. She recently crossed 11,000 points in the rankings table – a mark that only Serena has previously exceeded – and her lead is such that she is almost guaranteed to overtake both Justine Henin and Barty in the list of longest-serving world No1s this season.

The names ahead of those two? Only six, all of them veritable legends. Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis and Monica Seles.

A questing mind

If Swiatek has not yet achieved the same public stature as any of those legendary predecessors, that is partly a function of her nationality. Poland is neither a juicy commercial market nor a country with a famous tennis heritage.

But there is another possible explanation, and that lies in her introverted personality. During events, Swiatek avoids social commitments and prefers to read a good book – usually a classic from a simpler time. Gone With The Wind, Murder On The Orient Express and The Count of Monte Cristo have all featured on her bedside table.

She is not a natural orator, nor a self-publicist. When ushered towards the microphone at the end of the match, her voice often carries a tremor. And yet Swiatek has punchy opinions and is prepared to stand up for what she believes. She is more likely than her peers to call out a tournament for shabby organisation, or stand up for the value of the WTA Tour as a whole. “Who is gonna say now that women’s tennis is boring?” she asked, after her Madrid thriller against Sabalenka.

A sharp thinker, her matchplay displays an instinctive grasp of when to push and when to draw back. In a recent interview, her psychologist Daria Abramowicz explained that she had modelled this sixth sense on Osaka (the pre-maternity leave version).

Referring to a match in Toronto where an 18-year-old Swiatek lost in two tight sets, Abramowicz said: “Iga felt that when she had break points or something, Naomi just used her serve and raised her level. And then Iga thought, ‘So that’s it. That’s a top player. That’s the difference between the best and the rest of the field: that they are able to lock in in these most important moments.’ And that became a goal to implement this approach.”

Another insight from the same interview, as relayed by reporter Christopher Clarey, revealed that Swiatek has learned to reduce stress by compartmentalisation. As Clarey put it: “She and Abramowicz have focused on regulating her breathing and on dividing life and individual matches into compartments using the metaphor of the drawer: close one and open the next without dwelling on the past or projecting ahead.”

Process, process, process. Swiatek is the opposite of mercurial: a woman who likes to find a reliable pattern and repeat it over and over again.

A chink of light for the field?

After everything we have described, Swiatek’s rivals might wonder if it is even worth turning up at Roland Garros. Isn’t the French Open a done deal?

Perhaps, but Swiatek has also piled the expectation on herself with her flawless build-up. As she said after winning Rome last Saturday: “Grand slams are different. There is different pressure on the court and off the court.”

Outside Roland Garros, her major record shows as much. Yes, Swiatek has a US Open title from 2022. But that is the only grand-slam final she has reached in 15 attempts on hard or grass courts. At Wimbledon, where the ball skids through in a manner that suits flatter ball-strikers, she has a modest tally of nine wins from 13 matches.

The lesson? It is not easy being the best. “No1 was a very strange place,” wrote John McEnroe in his autobiography Serious. “The peak of the mountain, those icy winds blowing around my head.” McEnroe found various ways to cope, including his notorious temper tantrums, but still spent five years swapping that top spot back and forward with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.

So far, Swiatek’s reign has been more continuous: 105 weeks, broken only by one brief Sabalenka cameo. She might not enjoy the attention that comes with her success, but she can handle it. Over the next couple of weeks, expect her to handle each challenger with the same methodical ruthlessness. On clay, Swiatek is the champion who never blinks.