September 25, 2022

In March, Iga Swiatek was working on what, in retrospect, looks like a quaint little 11-game winning streak. It was around this time that she was lying in bed and someone knocked on the door of her apartment in Miami. A member of the team told her that Ashleigh Barty, the world No. 1 for 114 weeks, had just announced her retirement from tennis.

“You already know that I like to cry,” Swiatek told reporters the next day, “so I cried for a long time. I mean, there was a lot of confusion in me, that’s for sure.

It was 74 days ago. In the meantime, she has risen to the top rank in a spectacular and seamless way that few could have foreseen.

More Roland Garros

After beating Coco Gauff 6-1, 6-3 in Saturday’s final at Roland Garros, that streak has grown to 35 – and counting – a number no woman has surpassed this century.

For Swiatek, a big favorite approaching Paris, history has become the most relevant means of measurement.

Statisticians will document her progress going forward as she looks to surpass Venus Williams’ mark of 35 straight wins (2000) and chase Roger Federer’s 42 (2006) and Novak Djokovic’s 43 (2011). Swiatek, who turned 21 on Tuesday, has won 56 of his last 58 sets. The 2020 French Open champion is the youngest woman to win her second major title since 19-year-old Maria Sharapova won the 2006 US Open.

So much attention has been paid to Swiatek’s streak, but her recent string of success is in many ways the result of the mental toughness she has shown over the past few months.

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In one of the few matches where she was pressured, by Zheng Qinwen earlier this week in the quarter-finals, Swiatek didn’t panic.

“I felt like I could really handle a stressful situation on the court, and it was like a cold shower,” she later told reporters. “So when I was playing in the quarter-finals, I felt like even if something was going to go wrong, I always knew how to come back.

“So this game was definitely the hardest mentally, but when I got over it, I felt stronger. So I tried to take only positives from it.

That in itself was a small sample of his determination.

“A lot of things have changed in my mind and for sure I also realize that I can be No. 1 and really do well,” Swiatek said earlier in the tournament. “So that’s pretty cool.”

At 21, Swiatek is the youngest player in the Top 10 – more than three years younger than Aryna Sabalenka and Paula Badosa – but she played with the confidence of a much more experienced player.

Ahead of the final, Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver both identified Gauff’s erratic forehand and weak second serve as critical elements. Swiatek’s main strategy was aimed at Gauff’s forehand – of the teenager’s 23 unforced errors, 16 came on that wing.

Gauff won just eight of 20 second-serve points, including three costly double faults. These developments allowed Swiatek to play much more conservatively than if these shots worked for Gauff, who was the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004 – the year Gauff was born.

When Billie Jean King saw Swiatek win two years ago, she wondered how she would hold up.

And today?

“What makes her interesting is that her forehand is so different from her backhand and her serve is getting better,” King said ahead of the final. “She’s actually pretty quick. I wasn’t sure about her, how fast she was, but she’s pretty fast. This is what is expected of a champion.

“She really wants it.”

After Swiatek’s first game in Miami, a 6-2, 6-0 win over Viktorija Golubic, she was welcomed onto the court by Tournament Director James Blake and Lindsay Davenport. They marked her next ranking by giving her flowers.

“It’s really hard to expect anything – I’ve never been to such a place,” Swiatek said afterwards. “I think it’s going to be a little different. I may have to be careful if I wear clean clothes and represent tennis well.

“From my point of view, I don’t think anything will change.”

But, of course, it is. She has changed – for the good, for the better.