By Giri Nathan
What’s been especially cool is seeing Swiatek grow into the role, with a little skill development and a little tactical refinement. Everything still revolves around her baseline game, the heaviest topspin on tour. Her serve, never a particular strength of hers, has gotten a bit sharper. But her recent dominance has been all about a smothering return game. During this 16-match win streak, there were 13 matches where she won more than 50 percent of points on return; in four of those matches she won a terrifying 60 percent of return points. Going into any given set right now, the default expectation is that she’ll break serve, and unsurprisingly her last eight matches have closed in straight sets. She’s also adopted a more aggressive way of ending points, even though it required her to go against the grain of her tennis instincts.
“Right now I have moments when I can feel that I have nothing to lose and I’m going all in. Actually, before really I didn’t want to take that risk, because I didn’t want to be that kind of player who is just going to shoot the balls and we’re going to see if it’s going to be in or out. I wanted always to be solid and the kind of clay-court player who is going to play topspin and stay back,” she said in Doha in February, talking about the shift she made with new coach Tomasz Wiktorowski, and describing how her strokes have “loosened up.” All she had to do was look around and see what worked for everyone else.
“Players who are attacking and leading are winning. I wanted to also learn how to do that. They convinced me basically to do that, because at first I had that attitude that, hey, I’m happy with my solid game, you know? But this is actually making my matches easier, so I don’t know why I was so stubborn,” she said, smiling. Maria Sakkari, speaking ahead of their Indian Wells final, said, “She’s not the Iga that she was a year ago.” (Sakkari won all three of their meetings in 2021; she’s lost both so far in 2022.)
Watching this topspin-loving French Open champ learn to swing a little freer on hard courts, I’m reminded of someone else: Rafa, Swiatek’s former tennis idol, and present hitting/texting buddy. In his early years he started out with a more patient defensive style, before he fashioned his forehand into the great court-opening weapon in the men’s game and learned to end points with brutal efficiency at the net. I hear he’s having a decent season too. Maybe it’s not such a bad template to follow.
Above: Iga Świątek at Indian Wells last month. (David Bartholow)