Arriving in New York for this year’s US Open, I was delighted to return to a city that, as always, is on its way back from hard times. But I was surprised to keep hearing questions about the lack of a dominant player in women’s tennis.
The farewell tour of Serena Williams, the greatest women’s champion of this era, explained the interest in who could fill the void, but if you’ve been following the women’s game this year, there was a lot of dominance on display.
doha. Indian Wells. miami. Stuttgart. Rome. Paris.
Iga Swiatek has won titles in all those cities this year and it should come as no surprise to anyone, not even an emotional Swiatek, that she added New York to the longlist on Saturday afternoon.
Her 6-2, 7-6 (5) win over Ons Jabeur in the US Open Women’s Final on Saturday was a reminder of what makes Swiatek such a strength:
Phenomenal, elastic, sliding defense in the corners, often from the near splits popularized by Kim Clijsters and Novak Djokovic.
The speed of the sprinter advances. (She chased Jabeur’s signature drop shots on Saturday like a cheetah chasing an injured impala.)
Heavyweight punch and ground penetration, especially the topspin forehand like Swiatek’s role model Rafael Nadal.
Great mental strength, allowing her to find and maintain her focus forcibly with the help of her longtime performance psychologist and friend, Daria Abramowicz. She is now 10-1 in the tour-level singles final.
That package of skills, both innate and acquired, has created a true champion, and what should be really terrifying for the opponent is that she can still improve her serve, transition play and volleys by big margins.
At just 21 years old, Swiatek is a bona fide No. 1 with a huge lead in the rankings over Jabeur, the captivating and gifted Tunisian who is back at No. 2 on Monday.
Swiatek has 10,365 points above Jabeur’s 5,090: the kind of clear division that big players like Williams or Steffi Graf have created in the past. And the last woman to win seven or more singles titles in a season was Williams in 2014.
“My goal was to get 10,000 points,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, Swiatek’s coach who joined her team in December and has been one of the architects of her great season.
After surprisingly winning the French Open in 2020 and then cementing its place in the top 10, Swiatek took off in 2022, taking 37 consecutive wins earlier this season, often by skewed Grafian margins, and a second French Open and — after a brief market correction in July and August — her first US Open.
With three majors, she is now closing in on Naomi Osaka, the Japanese star and former No. 1 who has won two US Opens and two Australian Opens, as the most accomplished major champion of their generation.
But Swiatek, who is three years younger than 24-year-old Osaka, already has a significant performance advantage. While Osaka has never won a clay or grass tour title, Swiatek poses a multi-surface threat. Of her seven titles this season, three have been won on her favorite red clay court, but four on hard courts like those used at the US Open.
“I wasn’t sure if I was already at the level to actually win a Grand Slam, especially at the US Open where the surface is so fast,” she said of hard courts. “It’s something I certainly didn’t expect. It’s also a confirmation for me that sky is the limit.”
The sky must include Wimbledon. While Swiatek has yet to make it past the fourth round on the grass of the All England Club, she won the junior title there in 2018 and has the toolset and improv athleticism to win the main event down there.
In her only game with Osaka this season (and in the past three years), Swiatek thundered past her, 6-4, 6-0, on Osaka’s best surface in the Miami Open final.
Osaka has played little since and struggled with injuries and her timing when she did play. She is ranked number 44 and yet she remains by far the most prominent young women’s tennis star worldwide: the highest earning female athlete, able to start her own management company with her agent Stuart Duguid and attract other players such as Nick Kyrgios. .
Her high profile is based on performance to be sure, but also on geography as she represents an important market like Japan, while she is based in another important market, the United States. She has also been bold and outspoken on social justice issues and her own mental health challenges, positioning herself as one of the voices of an engaged generation.
It will be intriguing to see if Swiatek, already a superstar in her home country of Poland, can also break through globally. She is smart and empathetic, likes to read and can joke when she doesn’t have a forehand. She handed over the $2.6 million championship check on Saturday, saying, “I’m really glad it’s not in cash.”
Although she said in an interview in Paris in May that she was still trying to figure out how to best use her new platform, she has since shown a new willingness and confidence to speak out. She staged an exhibition in Poland in July to raise aid funds for young Ukrainians and is the only protagonist who is not from Ukraine and still wears a blue and yellow ribbon on the runway to show her support for Ukraine in the war with Russia. to mark.
“Society, we don’t have a long memory, but I mean lives are at stake, so I think we need to remind people,” she told me at Wimbledon, where players from Russia and its ally Belarus were excluded.
But it’s her tennis that has spoken the loudest and eloquently in 2022, and as she dragged through the draw to win the French Open, stormy weather forced her to play in New York — coming back to beat Jule Niemeier and Aryna Sabalenka in three. sets — for securing the trophy under a clear sky.
“Of course Roland Garros, I always feel like I have more control, and I feel like Philippe Chatrier is kind of my place,” she said of the center court in Paris. “Here on Ashe, I’ve yet to discover the atmosphere. I wasn’t sure before the game if this was really my place.”
There’s no doubt that she found her void only in 2022: rising to the top after the shock of Ashleigh Barty, the Australian star who was a firmly entrenched No. 1 when she announced she was quitting the game on March 25. age.
It was another major blow to the women’s game, where too many stars have left too early, and Swiatek has expressed regret that she will no longer have the chance to test her power tennis against Barty’s more varied skills. Jabeur has Barty-esque versatility, but lacks the Australian’s formidable serve and cannot generate the same powerful topspin from her forehand or poor sidespin when hitting her backhand with one hand.
Even during Williams’ quarter-century at or near the top, the women’s game often lacked a transcendent rivalry. There’s nothing like Graf vs. Monica Seles; certainly nothing like Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, who was at the sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday to present the women’s trophy to Swiatek.
swiatek vs. Osaka, or Swiatek vs. Jabeur of Swiatek vs. Coco Gauff all sound like good ideas for the future. Despite rumors to the contrary, women’s tennis does indeed have a dominant player, one with a long-term plan to stay there. Now other women have to consistently stand up to challenge her.