PARIS — Iga Swiatek, unbeaten since February, was sitting in the players’ restaurant at the French Open and twisting her head right and left at high speed, her eyes comically wide as they darted to and fro.
This was her impression of her former self.
“I remember a time when I was only able to focus for like 40 minutes and suddenly my head was like a pigeon,” Swiatek said in an interview. “I was looking everywhere but where I should have been looking.”
Her gaze and her game are quite steadier now. After winning the French Open in 2020 out of the blue and out of season in October as an unseeded teenager, she is back in Paris this year in the spring as a dominant and increasingly intimidating world No. 1.
At age 20, it is as if she has grasped — in Jedi Knight fashion — the full powers at her disposal.
“I’m not a Star Wars fan, but that makes sense,” Swiatek said.
Swiatek, who claimed the top women’s singles ranking on April 3, has won five straight tournaments: three on hardcourts and two on clay. She has won 29 straight singles matches, the longest streak in nine years on the WTA Tour, often prevailing by lopsided, in-the-zone margins that have fans joking that she must enjoy baking because of all the bagels (sets won 6-0) and baguettes (sets won 6-1).
She trounced Naomi Osaka, the most famous player of their generation, 6-4, 6-0, last month in the Miami Open final, and Swiatek reopened the bakery on Monday, routing the Ukrainian qualifier Lesia Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in just 54 minutes in the first round of the French Open.
“When I see the ranking next to my name it’s pretty surreal still,” said Swiatek, the first No. 1 in singles from Poland on either tour.
Is she walking taller now as she makes her way around the grounds and locker rooms of Roland Garros and slaps hands with her idol, the 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, on the practice courts?
“I feel much, much taller than two years ago,” she said.
Some of Swiatek’s newfound dominance is due no doubt to the surprise abdication by Ashleigh Barty, the Australian star with the complete game who retired suddenly in March at age 25 while holding the No. 1 ranking shortly after winning the Australian Open. Barty was 2-0 against Swiatek and defeated her in January in a tournament in Adelaide, Australia: one of only three losses for Swiatek this season.
But Swiatek, one of the quickest and most acrobatic athletes in the women’s game, was already building momentum with Tomasz Wiktorowski, her new coach, before Barty’s retirement. With a yen for self-improvement and world travel and a long-term plan to avoid injuries and ennui, Swiatek appears equipped to be a champion with staying power in the women’s game where the biggest stars (the Williams sisters and Osaka) are no longer the best players and where too many new stars have slumped or, in Barty’s case, stepped away altogether.
“You have to remind yourself that you want to do this for many years on tour,” Swiatek said. “You can’t burn yourself out.”
Swiatek, a self-described perfectionist, and her team recognize that this trait cuts two ways in a sport in which perfection is impossible. It can break players down as they bemoan the inevitable errors, but it can also fuel a deep internal drive.
Swiatek is well aware of the downside, which is partly why she has worked with psychologists since her junior career. She still has her struggles. At the WTA Finals last November in Guadalajara, Mexico, in her final match of the season, she began crying on the court during the final stages of her round-robin loss to Maria Sakkari.
“I felt like I was getting more tired every month and for sure in Guadalajara that was for sure the peak moment for me where I just didn’t have battery you know to kind of control my emotions,” she said.
With an eye on conserving battery power, she is aiming for work-life balance, which means cutting back on playing doubles and adding more tourist time in the cities she visits after all the pandemic restrictions and tournament-only bubbles of 2020 and 2021. In Rome this month, on her way to her latest title, she took in the Colosseum and made two visits to the Vatican.
Avoiding burnout also means compartmentalizing, and Swiatek’s compartmentalizer-in-chief is Daria Abramowicz, her full-time performance psychologist.
Swiatek said she realized after Abramowicz started traveling with her to tournaments in 2019 that sports psychology was best practiced on site, not during office visits in Warsaw.
“It’s just much, much easier for me to trust somebody who’s actually around me all the time,” she said.
Abramowicz, 35, is a constant companion at tournament sites, closely monitoring Swiatek’s mind-set and energy levels. She is pushing Swiatek to keep her answers shorter in news conferences to conserve energy. She even made sure Swiatek did not read the end of the novel “Gone With the Wind” on the same day she had a match to avoid draining her emotionally.
Abramowicz wants to create a haven for Swiatek through her routine and support system. “No matter how much storm there is going on around, there’s always an eye of the hurricane that has to be calm; this core that has to be always the same,” she said.
Abramowicz favors metaphors, and she and Swiatek use the image of opening and closing drawers.
“At first it was everything that was tennis was in one drawer and non-tennis stuff in one drawer,” Abramowicz said.
But they have expanded the concept and even use it to break matches into more manageable chunks.
To increase Swiatek’s ability to play in the zone, they use various brain-training tools and technology. But they also have used more classic methods: visualization and breathing exercises, which Swiatek sometimes does on changeovers with a towel draped over her head.
For those accustomed to seeing Swiatek on the court, where she plays in a cap with her ponytail dangling out the back, it is slightly unusual to be in her hatless presence with her open regard and her shoulder-length dark hair framing her face.
“I can’t measure her smartness, but she’s curious, and I think it’s the way of being smart,” said Maciej Ryszczuk, Swiatek’s fitness trainer and physiotherapist. “If she doesn’t know something, she’s asking and if not, she’s reading about it.”
Though Swiatek calls herself shy and gets drained by too much socializing, she is easy company. She is quick-witted, even in her second language of English. She can crack a joke; she deflects or flat-out rejects compliments and exchanges book recommendations as readily as groundstrokes even if the book titles, unlike the tennis titles, sometimes escape her.
For her 20th birthday, her management team gave her 20 books, all in Polish because for Swiatek reading long-form in English, despite her fluency in the language, still feels like studying. “I’m always writing down words I don’t know,” she said.
The 20 books’ subjects ranged widely: from “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell to “The Crisis Caravan” by Linda Polman to “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert.
“I feel weird sometimes when I don’t read for a few days,” Swiatek said. “Because I feel like, Oh, that’s a signal I don’t have the balance in my life I should have.”
Though there were no tennis books in her birthday package, she has twice read Andre Agassi’s autobiography “Open,” in which he writes about coming to love the game after hating it.
Where is she on that scale?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s a tough one,” she said sounding, as she often does, like she is about to laugh without making the transition to laughter.
“It’s a love-and-hate relationship for sure,” she said of tennis. “I’m not the kind of person who fell in love with it from the first time. I’m aware of the fact that if my dad had not been so persistent and so encouraging for me to continue playing tennis, probably I wouldn’t be playing right now. But for sure, I’m that kind of person who likes to finish things that I started.”
Swiatek’s father, the former Olympic rower Tomasz Swiatek, is still involved in her career and is organizing a WTA tournament in Warsaw later this year. Her parents are divorced and her mother, an orthodontist, is “not in the picture,” according to Abramowicz.
Swiatek, whose career prize money just passed $9 million, has purchased a small apartment in Warsaw but still lives at the family home in the suburb of Raszyn.
Her road trips have been very successful of late as Swiatek, tight to the baseline, imposes her rhythm and shrinks the open space: walking briskly between points and setting a torrid pace once points begin.
Her confidence in her aggressive Plan A is palpable. This full-court press is by design: part of the plan recommended by Witkorowski, who previously worked with Agnieszka Radwanska, a former world No. 2 and Wimbledon finalist who retired in 2018.
Witkorowski joined Swiatek in December during the off-season after she split with Piotr Sierzputowski, her coach for five years. Witkorowski has emphasized the positive, which became clear as they watched videos of her matches. Swiatek wanted to watch defeats to learn from her mistakes. He insisted on watching victories as well to focus on her strengths.
“This kind of attitude helped me believe that I can be more aggressive on court and actually use the strengths I have,” she said, “Before I was more like analyzing how my opponent was playing and adjusting to that. But this year I want to be more proactive. I want to lead.”
Radwanska, a trick-shot artist nicknamed The Magician, was the most successful modern Polish player until Swiatek, but “Aga” was an underpowered counterpuncher in comparison with “Iga”, whose signature shot is her explosive inside-out forehand, a bludgeoning blow that features heavy topspin.
Swiatek believes in her work and that she has “good genes” because of her Olympian father. “I feel my body was made to be involved in sports,” she said.
She and Ryszczuk are taking no chances. She does not run off the court in order to limit pounding on her legs, using exercise bicycles for the cardio work.
“The main thing is to keep her safe, strong and healthy,” he said.
It is a long-term plan for a long-term planner, who makes good use of her Google calendar and likes to control not only her strokes but her business.
“I’ve read so many deals, so many contracts during the past 18 months,” she said. “I heard some stories about players who are not really responsible in that part of life. I also made some mistakes when I was younger in terms of signing things. So right now, I’m reading everything.”
She is winning everything, too, and surely not by coincidence. On Thursday, two days before this French Open began, she was talking on her phone outside the main stadium while Abramowicz watched her from a bench at a distance.
“It’s the last day for business calls,” Abramowicz explained. “After that, it’s time to close that drawer and open another.”