Photograph: Getty Images
The queen is dead. Long live the queen.
That was the situation the WTA, and greater tennis community faced on April 4th, when Ash Barty’s name was pulled from the rankings, due to her sudden retirement from the sport.
The number 2 ranked player at the time, was Iga Swiatek, the 20-year-old woman hailing from Warsaw, Poland. Suddenly, this young lady was being thrust into the spotlight as the world’s best player. However, the elephant in the room, was that everyone knew she wasn’t. At least not then. Not yet. Particularly here in Australia, Iga was perceived as a ‘default’ number one. A seat filler if you like, until Ash inevitably makes a comeback, and dominates the world again.
Envision being just 20 years old, with the pressure of holding the number one ranking. Now imagine the extra pressure knowing sections of the community are almost certainly going to judge you more harshly, simply because one of your opponents has called time on her career.
Iga admitted herself, that she cried when told of Ash Barty’s retirement. Part of this, she says, was because it really surprised her. But no doubt, part of it must’ve been the realisation that she was about to reign over the world of women’s tennis. Could she live up to expectations, and take control of the number one position?
Yes. Quicker than probably even she imagined.
Since officially taking over as number 1, Iga has won 11 matches in a row, dropping only one set, and taking out titles in Stuttgart and Rome. A brilliant response to anyone questioning her credentials. Part of this response must be attributed to Iga’s willingness to embrace the inner game of tennis. For a couple of years now, she has been working very closely with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz. Daria has been quoted as saying “We as a team, and obviously, Iga herself, put in all the work to be able to manage success properly when it comes.” This quote speaks volumes as to why and how she has been able to handle her achievements at a young age.
But this is not even half the story.
Iga is currently on a 28 match winning streak, and has claimed 5 titles in a row!
These are not your lower tier ‘run of the mill’ tournaments. In fact, during these five tournaments, aside from one match, where she drew a qualifier in the first round, every opponent was entrenched inside the top 60 in the world, except two – Osaka, and Andreescu – both major winners, and genuine top ten players when fit.
Currently, Iga has over 7000 points in the rankings table, which is more than 2000 ahead of second place. If we narrow that down to the singles race (calendar year only), her dominance becomes clearer. Sitting on 5290 points, she has an extraordinary lead of 2780 points over her nearest rival. Not bad, considering she is also the youngest of the top ten by close to five years.
Clearly, Swiatek is on a dream run right now, and it’s genuinely hard to see who will beat her. The only other player who looked capable of bringing her run to an end, was her opponent in the Rome final, Ons Jabeur, second in the singles race, and herself, coming off an 11 match win streak.
How did that turn out? Iga simply dismantled her game 6-2, 6-2, in what was, in reality, a highly entertaining match. Perhaps the scoreline didn’t quite do Ons justice, but nonetheless, Iga never really looked like losing, and to be fair, hasn’t for quite some time.
This leads to a ridiculous stat, of which there’s plenty surrounding Iga’s career right now. If Iga reaches a final, you may as well hand her the title.
Swiatek has reached nine WTA finals already, and despite losing her very first decider in three sets, she has now won her last eight. All in straight sets, losing an average of just 3.5 games per match. That is simply astounding, and the definition of supremacy.
This domination has been building for some time though. Between 2016 and 2018, while still a junior, Swiatek was plying her trade on the ITF circuit. During that time, she reached seven finals. She won them all, dropping only one set in those deciders.
On top of these seven ITF titles, in 2018, Swiatek took out the junior Wimbledon title, dropping only a single set in the entire tournament. The signs were there, that this young lady was about to make waves on the WTA tour. Very large waves. Perhaps here in Australia especially, we were a little bit blind to all this, while we were preoccupied with basking in the glow of Ash’s success.
Before I go on, I want to reflect on the men’s side of the game for a brief moment. The hype surrounding Carlos Alcaraz is currently reaching fever pitch levels. So much so, that he is second favourite to win the French Open at just 19 years old. Carlos also has a ridiculously good record when reaching finals, having reached seven on the ATP tour, and winning all of them in straight sets.
He is being seen as the next Rafa, the next player to dominate the tour. There are already calls that he will surpass the record Slam wins. All this before he has even won one.
I make this point, because it feels like the hype around Iga has been far far lower (although increasing exponentially now), despite, when looking at her record, it’s arguable she has been on a very similar trajectory to Carlos.
Two years ago, in 2020, when Iga Swiatek was 19, unseeded, and unheralded, she became the first Polish woman to win a major title. A stunning achievement, yet it feels as though this performance got lost in the Covid years, a little bit like Dominic Theim’s US Open triumph. Regardless of how many people were in the stands, or which players she had to defeat en route to the title, at 19, Iga became the youngest women’s winner since Monica Seles in 1992.
Since then, she hasn’t been back to a major final, which may go some way to explaining the lack of hysteria since her first major win. But again, Iga is still just 20 years old at the start of this French open campaign, and with an undefeated clay court season under her belt, one gets the feeling she’s about to pull off her second major. And, if we can indulge in a bit of ‘Carlos-type’ hype for a moment, she may just be on her way to chasing Serena and Margaret Court’s records.
Watching Iga play at the moment, is watching a player with absolute confidence that she can overcome anything her opponent throws at her. She plays an aggressive style, but is smart in her aggression, and has a brilliant ability to pull the trigger at just the right time.
Swiatek has variety in her shot making, using drop shots, lobs, and angles, just as often as raw power. She appears to have a wonderful tennis brain, understanding how to construct points, and take away opponents' strengths. Iga Swiatek is a pleasure to watch, and we all should get used to seeing a lot more of her in the next decade.
The queen is dead…? No, the queen is just arriving.