Iga Swiatek on Tuesday became only the ninth woman in history to stay as World No.1 on the WTA Tour for an entire year since the computerised rankings system was introduced in 1975.
Swiatek had already made history by becoming the first Polish player to clinch a Major in singles at the 2020 French Open. However, to become the best in the world, what she had done during that fortnight in Paris had to be repeated week after week on the tour. With two titles in 2021, she finished the year as World No. 9 and her new coach Tomasz Wiktorowski said that the next goal was to be World No.1 within a year.
Finally, someone was ready to challenge Australia’s Ash Barty who had been the top-ranked player since September 2019. While Swiatek lost to her in the semifinals of Adelaide International 1 in the first week of January 2022, the signs were there for an exciting match-up.
Swiatek won the Masters events in Doha and Indian Wells, and on March 21, she was ranked the second-best player in the world, only behind Barty.
Two days later, Barty, the then-Australian Open champion, shocked everyone by announcing retirement at the age of 25.
Swiatek was set to be crowned the new World No.1 and she confirmed her status by winning the Miami Open, becoming the youngest woman to complete the Sunshine Double (winning Indian Wells Masters and Miami Open in the same year).
The passing of the No.1 baton from Barty to Swiatek could not have been smoother as the Pole went on to dominate the WTA Tour for the rest of the year with a 37-match winning streak (the longest for any woman in the 21st century) and Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros and US Open.
“Iga’s bakery” became a thing on social media as Tiramisu-lover Swiatek brushed aside a majority of her opponents with ease, dishing out 22 bagels (6-0 sets) and 21 baguettes (6-1) in 2022 and finishing with a 67-8 win-loss record. At this point, along with football star Robert Lewandowski, Swiatek is the biggest sports icon in Poland, a country that did not have a long tradition of playing tennis until she burst onto the scene.
The rise of Swiatek hasn’t only been because of the improvement in her physical game. The Pole, admittedly an introvert, has also focused on how to deal with her emotions on the court and travels with psychologist Daria Abramowicz for mental training, something not many players do.
While she continued to dazzle with her astounding performances, Swiatek also showed how deeply she cares about the society. In solidarity with Ukrainians all around the globe after the Russian invasion, Swiatek has played with a yellow and blue ribbon (colours of the Ukrainian national flag) pinned to her baseball cap.
Swiatek’s statistics since becoming World No.1
She also pledged to donate the prize money won after the runner-up finish in Ostrava last year to a Polish mental health charity. In December, she announced that she would auction the racquet with which she won the 2022 Roland Garros and US Open titles for charity before Christmas.
The 2023 season has some tough questions in store for the Pole. She is yet to conquer the grass courts. After a year of largely staying unchallenged, she may finally have strong competitors in Elena Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka and Barbora Krejcikova who have already shown that Swiatek is not infallible. The gruelling demands of tour-level tennis will also test her fitness levels once again.
In a piece for The Players’ Tribune earlier this year, Swiatek had spoken about how she had started crying when she got to know about Barty’s decision to retire last year. She could not understand how someone could say goodbye to the sport at such a young age until she saw the Australian’s Instagram video.
Swiatek wrote, ‘I feel every year, in a different way, how tough it is to be on tour. You have many obligations that you have to fulfill, and you have to learn how to balance that with the work you’re doing on court. You realise that your job is not simply to “put this ball in that square.” It gets a little bit more complicated the farther you go, and sometimes, a little bit less fun, truthfully. It’s hard to have that kid that you have in your head, or in your body, show up every time.’
Towards the end of the same article, she mentions that learning to ‘let go’ and not caring about what people think about her helped her reach the heights that she has.
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