Iga Swiatek isn’t a household name. She isn’t known simply by her first name, as Serena, Venus and Naomi are. She isn’t from a tennis hotbed – Poland’s never had a No. 1 player. Iga’s strokes don’t wow you. Plus she’s only 20. But Monday she’ll be No. 1.
It’s no Polish joke – the kid draws few headlines. After all, she doesn’t chuck rackets, she doesn’t have a rocker boyfriend. But she’s fleet, gifted and smart, and you don’t want to deal with her kick serve or her imposing, spinny forehand.
Her greatest pride is the physical shape she’s in. But she’s a pioneer because she works with and travels with a mental coach. And she’s in that intriguing transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. She’s into Santana and Pearl Jam, and she definitely knows how to get out of a jam. In Indian Wells, three times she came back from being a set down. And – get this – she reads books.
Recently she claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby isn’t deep, and is not long enough. For Indian Wells fans, the women’s final wasn’t long enough. Iga easily dispatched Maria Sakkari.
Today, in the Miami Open final, Iga was hoping to add to her triumphs in Doha and Indian Wells to become the first player ever to win all three of the WTA’s first 1000-level trophies. Plus, she was hoping to gain her 17th consecutive match that would enable her to join Steffi Graf, Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka as the only players to ever win the Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and Miami) in the same year.
“Naomi, you suck!” called out an apparently drunk woman In Indian Wells. Tears welled up, Osaka’s chest heaved. She’s a sensitive soul.
At the Miami Open, Naomi didn’t suck. She beat the likes of Angie Kerber, Aussie Open finalist Danielle Collins and Olympic Gold medalist Belinda Bencic to reach the final. Again tears flowed.
More than this, Osaka, on-court and off, showed us the power of resilience, and reminded us that not since Serena has a young player given us such drama. The 24-year-old first broke out in Indian Wells and then endured the most tumultuous match in tennis history, the 2018 US Open final. There her coach commented that the world should learn from her innocence.
A couple of years later, Naomi stepped forward to lead a gutsy campaign for racial justice. Then last year she boycotted press conferences and kick-started our focus on mental wellness. The woman who once enchanted reporters with whimsical press conferences now appeared to be frozen and fearful. She boycotted press conferences and she seemed not to like her sport or her life.
Yes, she made $70 million last year and lit the Olympic torch, but then she headed off to France and Italy to be a tourist. Back in New York, she had better luck at the Met Gala in Manhattan than at the US Open in Queens.
To her great credit, she spoke in Indian Wells of her new calm and positive perspective. She joked that writers seemed to be learning Japanese. But then that Indian Wells fan brought her to tears, and Serena’s observation, “I’m thick and she’s thin,” immediately came to mind.
Fortunately, before Miami, Naomi finally got some mental wellness training and started to use breathing techniques. When the Japanese star, who lives in LA, unleashed her big serve and power game to come from behind to beat Benic and reach her first final in 13 months, there were tears of joy and relief. Many praised her ability to overcome so much. There were happy tales of her going on rock tours, walking about the Dallas Open as a fan and having slumber parties with her pals in San Francisco.
Today’s final was hardly a slumber party. But it was a definitive statement by the new sheriff in town. Iga was faster out of the gate than her 24-year-old rival. In rhythm, and with an unshakable focus, Swiatek embraced the pressure of the moment. Her forehand, 7 mph faster than Osaka’s, was a game-changing weapon. A cross-court return of serve shouted loud. Iga flows on court. Her speed and anticipation are marvelous. Her kick serve is unkind, her athleticism and easy power impress.
She prevailed in a marathon, 12-minute first game. Then, after she broke serve to take a 3-2 lead, she never looked back. Iga imposed her almost flawless game on her bewildered foe. Nothing Naomi tried worked. Standing far in on Swiatek’s serve only made a tough day at the office even worse. As Iga repeatedly created angles and opened the court, Naomi was left lunging. The Pole absorbed Osaka’s powerful serve, “No problemo.”
Iga’s lopsided 6-4, 6-0 win was a tour de force. She dominated with 21 winners from the baseline and lost just 12 points on serve. It’s now obvious that she’s a sublime talent, and tournament director James Blake stated the obvious: “We are inspired by you and what we have to look forward to: an incredible career.”
In a WTA world without the likes of the inactive 40-year-old Serena and the just-retired 25-year-old Ash Barty, young Swiatek could be on the cusp of dominance. She’s only won one Grand Slam, but one senses her trophy case will soon be bulging. When announcer Andrew Krasny asked her if she was ready to lift the Miami trophy, tennis’ favorite Iga replied, “Yeah, I was born to do that.”