Welcome to Iga Swiatek’s bakery, where bagels and breadsticks are always on the menu | Tumaini Carayol

Estimated read time 6 min read

Before Madison Keys faced Iga Swiatek at the Italian Open this month, she was asked what adjustments she would make against the best player in the world. She did not need time to consider her response: “Win more games.”

Even that simple goal turned out to be too ambitious. Twelve days after Swiatek had dismantled Keys 6-1, 6-3 in Madrid, she again handled the American with disdain in Rome, producing exactly the same scoreline. Still, Keys could hardly be upset. If the past few years of women’s tennis have shown players one thing, it is that when a confident, in-form Swiatek is standing on the other side of the net, things can always be worse.

Since her first grand slam title, at Roland Garros in October 2020, the Pole has put herself on the trajectory to all-time greatness. Aged only 22, she has already won four majors, 10 WTA 1000 titles and 21 WTA titles overall. Meanwhile, a new clay-court dynasty has begun. She returns to Roland Garros on a 12-match winning streak seeking her third straight French Open title. Most all-time greats display supreme consistency, which is usually reflected in a winning percentage above 80%. Swiatek’s career WTA record is 240-56 (81%).

But those achievements have been accentuated by the sheer brutality of Swiatek’s victories, her tendency to not only defeat her opponents but destroy them. Whether against hapless journeywomen, top players or supposed rivals, the Iga Swiatek bakery is always open. In tennis a 6-0 win is nicknamed a bagel, a 6-1 win a breadstick. Since the start of 2022, she has inflicted a 6-0 or 6-1 set on opponents in 49% of her matches.

The scoreboard reads 6-0, 6-0 after Iga Swiatek beats Karolina Pliskova in the 2021 women’s Italian Open finalView image in fullscreen

This is not a characteristic that has developed only since she reached the top of the game. In Swiatek’s teenage years, as she built her ranking without the benefit of many wildcards or help from a large federation, she was nicknamed by some fans as Eviswiatek for the manner in which she would eviscerate all opposition.

Since she reached the main tour, the frequency of those beatdowns has only increased. Her 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Simona Halep en route to her Roland Garros title in 2020 was a career-defining moment. Other important demolition jobs include a 6-4, 6-0 dismantling of Naomi Osaka in the 2022 Miami Open final, consecutive 6-2, 6-1 and 6-2, 6-2 wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur in Rome that year and her historic performance in Doha last year, where she conceded only five games in three matches, breaking a 49-year record for the fewest games a player has conceded en route to a WTA title.

At the WTA finals last year, Swiatek closed out the season with a 6-1, 6-0 destruction of the fifth seed, Jessica Pegula. “Ended the year through the Iga bakery factory lol,” the American wrote.

Iga Swiatek celebrates with the trophy after defeating Jessica Pegula in the 2023 WTA FinalsView image in fullscreen

Swiatek attributes her ability to win so convincingly to the mental work she has undertaken over the years, particularly with her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, with whom she has worked since her youth. She believes her front running is a reflection of her ability to remain mentally sharp and focused from start to finish, rarely losing her nerve and being ruthless until the end.

“I think all the mental stuff, I’m always kind of trying to stay present and do the same work no matter what stage of the match I’m in,” Swiatek says. “I think that’s the main thing, because honestly, that’s the only thing that comes to my mind why. Sometimes it’s harder to finish [matches] or sometimes when you’re leading you might lose your serve or something. It’s only because you kind of lose your focus. So I just want to stay the same way.”

But it is also a reflection of her simply being a better tennis player than her opponents. On the final day of his professional career, as he discussed the generations of players to come, Roger Federer departed with one last gem: “The best movers are the best players,” he said. Swiatek’s supreme athleticism is one of the attributes that distinguish her from the rest of the field. She is one of the quickest players on the tour, which she pairs with enough flexibility to slide into splits in both directions on all surfaces while she is extremely strong when forced out wide at full stretch.

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Once Swiatek reaches the ball, her sustained quality of shot is unrivalled. Her forehand alone has shifted the paradigm; women’s tennis has historically favoured flatter ball-striking, but Swiatek’s destructive, spin-heavy forehand, driven by her immense racket-head speed, ravages all defences. Her forehand is one of the most destructive weapons in the game but her backhand, with its additional consistency and ability to redirect pace and direct the ball to any part of the court, remains her best shot.

Alongside her strokes, Swiatek has clearly established herself as the best returner, smothering opponents with her relentless depth and consistency alongside her determination to crush second serves and immediately take control. Starting in 2022, Swiatek has respectively won 49.5%, 50.1% and 49.2% of return games a year. In short, she breaks serve every other game on average. When her game is in full flow, just holding serve against her is a significant task.

Iga Swiatek powers a return against Coco Gauff during their Italian Open semi-final in 2024View image in fullscreen

Along with being a better player, Swiatek performs at her best when the pressure is on in big matches or decisive points. Since losing her first final aged 17, she is 21-3 in finals. Of those 21 wins, 18 have been in straight sets and they have included nine bagels alongside six breadsticks.

Of all the beatdowns that Swiatek has dished out, one stands above all. Karolina Pliskova reached the Italian Open final three years ago full of confidence. After winning it in 2019, she had returned to the final in the two subsequent years. She had every reason to feel like Rome was fast becoming her tournament.

Instead, 46 minutes after the first ball was struck, it was over. Swiatek humiliated the Czech, a former No 1, 6-0, 6-0 to clinch her first of three titles in Rome: “I was not playing great but still, I made some [good] balls,” Pliskova said. “I thought she was just, yeah, having maybe a moment of her life.”

It was not quite an accurate assessment. While this may have been a particularly dramatic result, Swiatek has continued to consistently demolish quality opponents. As she begins her hunt for a third consecutive Roland Garros title, there are more to come.

Source: theguardian.com

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