French Open: Iga Swiatek on defending title, pressure & why Rafael Nadal is on her wall

Iga Swiatek
Iga Swiatek became Poland’s first Grand Slam singles champion by beating Sofia Kenin 6-4 6-1 to win the 2020 French Open

There is a picture of Rafael Nadal hanging on the wall along with one of his signed shirts – it’s a pretty ordinary teenaged tennis fan’s bedroom.

There is also a French Open trophy.

“It’s kind of funny because I won a Grand Slam and I’m competing every week on tour, but you know, I’m a teenager and it’s in my room in my dad’s house because I still haven’t moved out,” the Polish 19-year-old tells BBC Sport.

“It’s a contrast but it shows that we’re human. My trophy stays there and it probably still will when I move out because that’s the right place and it shows how much my parents have done since I was a kid.”

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the tennis calendar means that Swiatek will be defending her title next week just seven months after winning it, rather than a year later.

Having won admirers for her cool head on her way to winning the Roland Garros title without dropping a set, it is unsurprising that she is taking this in her stride too.

“When you win a Grand Slam everybody will always remember that you won a Grand Slam,” she says. “I don’t think of it like I have to defend the trophy and win the French Open because what I did is always going to be with me.”

‘Harder to deal with success than losing’

Swiatek was the world number 54 when she became the lowest-ranked woman to win the French Open title.

Next week she will go into the tournament ranked a career-high ninth in the world, with two more titles to her name – including this month’s Italian Open – and with a greater weight of expectation.

She has often attributed some of her Roland Garros success to her work with her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, and that was who she turned to after the victory that “completely changed” her life.

“Daria helped me a lot with all the expectations and all the stuff that was bothering me after the French Open because actually I realised that sometimes it’s harder to deal with success than the times you are losing,” Swiatek says.

“Sometimes with my own expectations it’s hard but then I have to remind myself that I just have to focus on work and just remember why I play tennis and have fun on court because sometimes I feel like I’m not playing for myself and that’s not a good thing.

“I just have to find that space where I just calm myself and remind myself that hopefully in two years I’m just going to be constantly in that mood when I just don’t worry and I’m just having fun because I think that’s what the biggest champions do, they just don’t care and they just play and focus on their job.”

And if she needs any more tips on how to deal with the pressure of being a defending champion, she can turn to her good friend and four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka.

“Naomi texted me after the French Open to say if I need anything then I can always ask her and she would understand perfectly because she has been in a situation like that,” she says. “It’s good to know you have the option.”

Dreams of winning a different Grand Slam

Iga swiatek with the 2018 junior wimbledon trophy
Swiatek won the 2018 junior Wimbledon title

There have been 12 different names on the past 16 women’s Grand Slam singles trophies, and the last female player to successfully defend a major singles title was Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2016.

“It’s hard to be defending champion for sure, especially in women’s tennis – I think with all the champions we kind of lack a consistency for a little bit,” Swiatek said.

So, would she rather win a different Grand Slam than defend her French title?

“I wish I had problems like that,” she laughs.

“I think it would be nice to win another Grand Slam because I know I can play on clay court but for the past few years I was trying to improve my game on hard courts, and it’s going pretty well and it would be a nice confirmation to me that I’m doing a great job.

“But also winning on grass would be pretty crazy for me because even though I won junior Wimbledon [in 2018], I still don’t understand that surface very well, so that would be really crazy but I would love to win Wimbledon.”

There is also the additional possibility of Olympic success this summer, something which would have added significance for Swiatek, whose dad Tomasz rowed at the 1988 Seoul Games.

“For me it’s a very important goal for this year,” she says. “For sure [having an Olympian dad] changed my perspective because when I was younger I heard stories of his experience there.

“I hope he is going to be there but because of Covid it’s hard to have as many people around you at tournaments, but his experience for sure would help so we are going to try and see how we’re going to handle that.”

If her dad has to stay at home, he can at least look after those trophies in his daughter’s room – and the Nadal memorabilia, even if Swiatek wonders what the Spanish 20-time Grand Slam champion himself would make of it.

“It’s kind of creepy,” she said. “But I hope he doesn’t find it that way!”


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