August 20, 2022

Ppredicting the future is a matter best left to gamblers and fools. But here is one anyway. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Iga Swiatek will land a whipping forehand with such violence and beauty that it will have the Center Court crowd gasping and purring. And before long, the general British sporting public will also understand what the tennis world already knows: the 21-year-old Pole is a generational talent heading for several Grand Slam tournaments.

Swiatek’s movement is sublime, his power obvious. USA Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe even favorably compared the venom of his groundstrokes to those of Serena Williams. “I’ve never seen a player hit with so much spin and pace,” he said recently. “Serena does everything, but Serena doesn’t play with the kind of topspin and racquet acceleration that this woman plays with.”

It is praise. But the numbers back it up. According to the Women’s Tennis Association, when Swiatek won her first French Open, in 2020, she not only hit the ball harder, on average, than any other woman in the draw, but her fastest forehand – 79 mph – only topped by Jannik Sinner on the men’s side.

Meanwhile, the maximum topspin revolutions per minute on his forehand in his 2020 final against Sofia Kenin reached 3,453 rpm – more than many men in the same tournament.

But, curiously, there’s something else that sets Swiatek apart: the way she emphasizes how psychology plays a role in her success.

Unusually, she even has renowned performance psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, with her on the tour, working on her mind daily to make it as powerful as her forehand.

When I spoke to Abramowicz recently, I asked how Swiatek was coping with the scrutiny that comes with winning an extraordinary 35 straight games – and a dominance record that has brought comparisons to Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams. The starting point, she stressed, was to do everything possible to optimize both athletic performance on the pitch and mental health off it.

“The two are linked,” she said. “Sometimes an athlete can shut everything else down when they’re playing. But it’s always short-term. And when you’re on the court, competing against the best in the world, there’s stress, there’s the tension, there is a lot of pressure and it shows.

Iga Swiatek after her maiden French Open triumph of 2020, where she hit the ball harder than any other woman in the draw. Photography: John Berry/Getty Images

Breathing, visualization and meditation were all important techniques used by Swiatek to calm the mind, she suggested, alongside EEG-based technology, which measures electrical activity in the brain and heart rate variability. But Abramowicz, who always gives Swiatek a pep talk 10 to 15 minutes before hitting the pitch, said she’s also been working on learning to savor the tough times while playing.

“It’s a very long-term goal that we have: to create this attitude where if a person is in a stressful situation, they are able to focus on solving problems, taking on challenges,” she said. declared. “When Iga played Ash Barty in Madrid last year, I saw Ash come into the box to grab his towel between the points and say to his team, ‘God, I didn’t play that way. for a few months” – and she seemed excited to have to solve something on the court. I really try to implement that attitude too.

In a sense, there is nothing new here. Tennis is an extremely mental game.

Books have been written – and fortunes have been made – on how to keep our brains from performing random acts of self-sabotage. Fifty years ago, Tim Gallwey suggested Zen thinking in The Inner Game of Tennis. While Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly made tennis sound like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Yet it’s rare for an athlete with Swiatek’s talent to speak up and speak out.

It’s also particularly remarkable given that being world No. 1 brings challenges that not everyone enjoys. Naomi Osaka stepped away from the game for a while to protect her sanity, while Barty decided to retire at 25. The gaze and social media abuse doesn’t help either. Abramowicz says she works with players to deal with it in a “smart” way – realizing they can’t control everything while making them appreciate “their strengths, goals, visions and dreams and develop a very strong sense of self-worth”. ”.

It’s a message that Abramowicz and his team are now delivering to all Asics-sponsored athletes as part of its plan to do more to help protect their mental health. Such a step, the first of a major sports brand, is long overdue. A study of 384 European professional soccer players, published in 2017, found that 37% had symptoms of anxiety or depression at some point over a 12-month period. Others, conducted with elite Australian and French athletes, have found the figure to range from 17% to 45% within a team.

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Part of the problem – as one study found – is that “athletes’ perception of themselves as superior acts as an internal barrier to seeking mental health treatment, particularly in elite sport. However, Abramowicz says she hopes that by speaking out more about mental health, “we’ll break down the stigma a bit.” For now, however, Swiatek is only focused on his first-round match on Tuesday. Her best Wimbledon result so far was a round of 16 loss to Ons Jabeur, but although grass isn’t her best surface, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why she couldn’t. not go any further this year.

And while for the English tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight, as my colleague Tim Adams so aptly put it, Swiatek’s body – and mind – looks set to leave a deep impression. .