Where iga dares

Express News Service

CHENNAI: October 10, 2020. It was apparent even then that a then unseeded Iga Swiatek was on her way to becoming tennis royalty. That Saturday on Court Philippe Chatrier, she had become the first teen to win at Roland Garros since Rafael Nadal conquered the dirt in 2005. Since that result in October 2020, the Pole had been on an upward curve.

That upward curve reached its apex — at least for the time being — with a straight-sets win over Coco Gauff to claim her second Major. The 6-1, 6-3 win also meant the 21-year-old equalled the longest winning streak by a women’s player (joint-best of 35 matches with Venus Williams). 

What makes her so good against all sorts of opponents on two surfaces so varied like hard and clay? Player-turned-analyst, Mary Carillo, compared her to a principal predator stalking prey during dinner time. “It’s sort of like watching a lion on the savannah, stalking a zebra,” she had told wtatennis.com in the lead up to the French Open. “In the beginning, it looks competitive. You are like, ‘go Zebra. Looking good, looking smooth’. Within a couple of games you are like ‘all right, pick up the pace, Zebra. Finally, you are like ‘oh’.”

When the French Open began on May 22, the women’s tournament was billed as ‘Iga Swiatek against the rest’. It had received such a billing because her biggest weapons, her vicious forehand, a very solid serve and return game is, at this moment, much better than the rest of the field. Right now, Swiatek, on her weaker days, is still better than most of the other players on their stronger days. 

The secret to the topspin behind her forehand is her western grip (a technique where in the palm is positioned under the racquet). There’s enough revs on the ball that one can compare it to Nadal’s forehand and considering she generates enough power behind her forehand already, it makes it a challenge for opponents. That same wtatennis.com piece had this detail about her run to the title in 2020. “When she won Roland Garros in 2020, Swiatek averaged the highest topspin forehand winners among women, around 3,200 revolutions per minute,” the piece noted (Nadal’s generally a few 100s revs higher but you get the drift). 

She constantly gets a good net clearance so there’s great depth but it seldom clears the paint on the far side because of the spin. The spin also means the ball bounces higher than it would normally do. All of this is tournament-winning armoury, especially on clay and that’s what she did for the last two weeks, losing one solitary set across seven matches. She combines that topspin heavy game by hitting balls still on its way up after bouncing. With this style, she tends to generate the sort of crazy angles that’s almost impossible for opponents to counter. One moment they are breathing comfortably, the next they are sending an SOS message.

The next question in Swiatek’s developmental curve — you need to remind yourself is still only 21 — will be fascinating. Especially when the next Major is on grass, a surface where she is yet to dominate (best is a fourth round in 2021). If she can master that, she will go someway in putting an end to a recent trend in the women’s game: Slam after Slam throwing up first-time winners. 

Road to title 

Rd 1 bt Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0 
Rd 2 bt Alison Riske 6-0, 6-2
Rd 3 bt Danka Kovinic 6-3, 7-5 
Rd 4 bt Qinwen Zhang 6-7 (5), 6-0, 6-2
QF bt Jessica Pegula 6-3, 6-2 
SF bt Daria Kasatkina 6-2, 6-1 
Final bt Coco Gauff 6-1, 6-3 

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