Ahead of US Open, Iga Swiatek seeks an elusive calm

Not often does a top professional tennis player, no less the holder of the world No. 1 ranking for more than a year, express a tinge of relief in the aftermath of a defeat.

Iga Swiatek, of Poland, reacts after a point against Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia, during the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Sept. 10, 2022(AP)
Iga Swiatek, of Poland, reacts after a point against Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia, during the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Sept. 10, 2022(AP)

Shown the exit door from this month’s WTA Cincinnati Open semi-final by Coco Gauff, a player she had beaten seven times before, Swiatek did not have any regret. The Pole was, in fact, happy to get the extra days off in the lead-up to her US Open title defence, saying her fuel tank was “pretty empty”.

And the mind a bit wavered. Over the course of the last couple of weeks the four-time Grand Slam champion, at most times oozing class and composure on and off the court, has spoken about being at the receiving end of excessive online hate and criticism, hit out at late-night match scheduling at tournaments and conveyed her unhappiness over some parts of a Netflix docuseries featuring the current face of women’s tennis.

That’s to go with her two semi-final exits in hard-court events this month after crashing out of the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.

Even for Swiatek, a player who raked in a 37-match win streak last year and a 53-9 win-loss record this season so far, losing tennis matches doesn’t stand out as much as her current mental state does. And bringing that back to her zen-like self will be decisive in the defending champion pulling off the repeat act in the season-ending Slam starting from Monday.

From her own experience of defending her crown at this year’s French Open, the 22-year-old has admitted that carrying the extra little burden “is not easy”. It certainly doesn’t get any easier if there are external distractions creeping in.

After her Round of 16 win over Zheng Qinwen in Cincinnati rallying from a set down, a pensive Swiatek began her press conference with a topic completely unrelated to the match: online hate and criticism. The world No. 1 opened up about how she and her team have to deal with plenty of it after losses, at times even after merely dropping a set. She pleaded for people to be more thoughtful and focus more on the “positive side of what we are doing”.

“It’s kind of sad for me to see that people I work with and myself, we are really judged,” she said in Cincinnati.

A few days before that, the usually diplomatic Pole took on the WTA for not addressing players’ reservations around scheduling matches deep into the night, a recurring theme in the previous tournament in Montreal. Swiatek labelled the Tour “so intense with travel” that she felt the players’ concerns deserved much greater attention.

Swiatek has played 14 tournaments this year, going deep in most of them. Fatigue tends to play a factor for serial winners in the season-ending Slam in New York. It could well too for the top-ranked Pole, running on an empty tank and a cluttered mind leading into it.

The form, more specifically the losses in the build-up, wouldn’t bother her too much. Swiatek went from her early Wimbledon ouster — not entirely unexpected on grass — to winning on the hard courts of her home WTA 250 event in Warsaw. Her twin WTA 1000 semi-final losses thereafter came against two in-form Americans — Jessica Pegula (Montreal) and Gauff (Cincinnati) — in really tight three-setters.

That’s still a much better build-up compared to last year, when Swiatek suffered third-round exits in both Montreal and Cincinnati and crashed out in the quarter-finals in Warsaw (held on clay). It mattered little in New York, where she brought along her Slam face and game.

Coming through a tricky fourth-round test with German Jule Niemeier — the top seed bounced back after losing the first set 6-2 — Swiatek kicked on. Victories against Pegula, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur in the final handed her a first major title on a surface other than clay.

The 2022 US Open triumph, as indeed her two WTA titles on hard courts this season, showed that Swiatek has the game to replicate her clay dominance to hard courts.

At the 2023 US Open for Swiatek, it will be more about the mind.

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