August 12, 2022

Never has a power vacuum been filled so convincingly in tennis. When Ash Barty retired in her prime in March, she also left the No. 1 ranking in the women’s game. It went to the next name on the ladder, Iga Swiatek, a Polish sidekick to Nadal with quite severe topspin and a growing clay-court resume. Swiatek became No. 1 in early April, when she was already on a radiator, and as if to drown out any whispers that she was lucky enough to reach No. 1, she has since refused to lose a tennis match. By routing an outclassed Coco Gauff 6-1, 6-3 in the French Open final on Saturday, Swiatek extended his winning streak to 35.

Swiatek is the eighth woman in the open era to assemble a streak of this length; it’s the longest since Venus Williams reached 35 in 2000, and it’s longer than the 34 Serena achieved in 2013. During that streak, Swiatek turned 21; won 70 of 76 sets played; won six hard-court (Doha, Indian Wells, Miami) and clay-court (Stuttgart, Rome, Roland Garros) titles; and metamorphosed from a promising young talent to the undisputed alpha of the WTA. That’s three productive months in the office.

“I felt like winning a Grand Slam twice, you really confirm that you are capable of doing it. So I was looking for that a bit,” Swiatek said, following his 2020 Roland-Garros title. “Now I don’t know what I’m going to hunt. I’m probably going to get some good snacks today, that’s all. She hung around Paris watching Rafa win his 14th on Sunday, then it was time for the rest, a luxury rarely offered to the best living tennis players.

A streak requires mastering both variable conditions and variable matchups, and Swiatek can thank the maturation of his game this season. She exceeded her natural tendencies – a high margin, loopy defensive style – to get into the baseline and attack her opponents.

“Right now I have moments where I can feel like I have nothing to lose and I go all out,” Swiatek said in Doha, the tournament where his streak began. “Actually, before really, I didn’t want to take that risk, because I didn’t want to be that kind of player who’s just going to shoot the balls and we’ll see if it’s going to be in or out. I’ve always wanted to be solid and the kind of clay court player who will topspin and hang back.

Working with new coach Tomasz Wiktorowski has “softened up” his shots. Swiatek has retained that old solidity in her footwork and balance – it’s hard to find a single shot at any given time when she’s not firmly rooted to the ground with her knees bent, drawing power from her legs – and added a bit more firepower and risk tolerance. Already a returner and dominant defender, her big topspin forehand is arguably the best shot in the WTA right now. (Ignore the sweaty thumbnail of this YouTube video; highlights are complete.)

If there’s a downside, it’s that Swiatek has become too good at sustaining real rivalries. This goes for top 10 neighbors like Maria Sakkari or Aryna Sabalenka; newcomers like Gauff or Emma Raducanu; or decorated veterans like Simona Halep or Victoria Azarenka. When Naomi Osaka bounced back from a miss to make the Miami Open final, I expected an impressive final. After a competitive first set, Swiatek ended the festivities with a quick 6-0. She has yet to make a consistent impact on grass so far in her career and, by her own admission, would only want a win or two on the ‘hard’ surface, so her colleagues could be spared over the next few weeks. However, a talent like his tends to find a way to translate to all surfaces. A young Nadal once went from the second round of Wimbledon to three consecutive finals, but a superfan might already know that.