The numbers — really, one number — would suggest that 2023 in women’s tennis ended just as it began, with Iga Swiatek at the top of the rankings.
For eight days at the WTA Tour Finals in Cancun, through wind and rain, an unpredictable tennis court and a hot mess of a tournament, Swiatek swatted aside all her opponents, finishing off the tournament and the year with an emphatic 6-1, 6-0 demolition of Jessica Pegula of the United States in Monday’s final. With the win, Swiatek reclaimed the No 1 ranking from Aryna Sabalenka, who had taken it from the Pole after the U.S. Open but held it for just under two months.
Sabalenka and Pegula, and Coco Gauff and Ons Jabeur and Marketa Vondrousova all fell victim to the new and improved Swiatek, a calmer, less rushed, and more patient player with an arsenal of strokes suddenly as efficient as they are frightening. Which lethal forehand do you like more? The driving crosscourt one that sends opponents scurrying for the corner? The whippy, looping one that bounces up to their eyes? Or the open-stance, inside-out blast down the line? All come packed with a surety and confidence that was fleeting earlier in the year.
This version of Swiatek, 22, who finished the year with some 3,500 people chanting “Iga, Iga!” seems so different to the fragile champion who struggled with the burdens of her perch at the start of the season. Swiatek never tried very hard to hide that struggle.
She arrived in Australia for the year’s first Grand Slam wracked by uncertainty over how to use the No 1 ranking as a weapon. Maybe it was because of how she earned it initially, rising to the summit in the spring of 2022 after Ash Barty decided to take an extremely early retirement at 25.
Maybe it was because Swiatek had sputtered in the WTA Finals two months before, then showed her vulnerabilities in losing to Pegula at the United Cup in January.
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Maybe it was because of how she spent the off-season. Feeling something like imposter syndrome, she wanted to process how a shy, bookish girl from Poland, a country that had never produced a Grand Slam champion, had somehow become the world’s best tennis player. So she went on the internet and started reading about herself instead of her usual dive into literary fiction (The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad have made her reading list in the past).
“I thought it was going to help me,” she said.
Not so much.
Now in Australia, she was back on hard courts, hardly her favorite surface, and feeling the pressure, searching for joy. When Elena Rybakina hit her off the court in the fourth round, Swiatek finally put words to what was plain to everyone watching. Her two weeks in Melbourne had been a step backwards in terms of her mindset on the court.
“I felt the pressure,” she said. “I felt that I don’t want to lose instead of I want to win.”
This is the great riddle of supremacy in tennis. As great as it is to be atop the world, there is only one direction to go from there. The fear of dropping down can sometimes be more overwhelming than the confidence that comes with seeing that “1” next to your name.
A few months later, a return to her beloved red clay brought some relief, but she lost the final in Madrid and failed to defend her title in Rome, before righting herself at Roland Garros to win her third French Open title in four years. But even after that triumph, the burden and the tricks it played on her mind were never far away.
“All that pressure is just not easy and that’s why this job isn’t so common,” she said, a couple of hours removed from her edgy, three-set win over Karolina Muchova. “Only a few of us can stay consistent.”
Wimbledon brought what it usually does for her, the frustration of grass-court tennis, which has just never been her thing. It ended in the quarter-finals, in a match where Swiatek pleaded with her box to give her some kind of plan to crack an inspired Elina Svitolina. The North American hard-court swing brought losses to Pegula and then Gauff in August. After Jelena Ostapenko blitzed her in the fourth round of the U.S. Open and Sabalenka made the finals, the No 1 ranking was gone.
Swiatek said then that she had tried not to think about the number, but that had only made her think about it more. She described her season as hard and intense. Maybe this early exit would give her time to reset, she said.
Eight weeks later, the last long backhand off Pegula’s racket had sent her back to the top of the game, and now she was bounding across the court pumping her fists in the air, smiling wide. Swiatek teared up as she grasped the hands of her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, and her psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, the two people who go nearly everywhere with her, beside the court in Cancun. None of it looked like relief for having not lost.
— wta (@WTA) November 6, 2023
All of this poses a frightening prospect for every other female tennis player — what if Swiatek’s first year and a half atop the tennis world was merely a learning experience, a practice run for what comes next? Even as she lost the top ranking in September, she had vowed that next time she made it to No 1, she would do things differently, as though she knew already knew her descent to No 2 would be temporary.
“It was a little bit stressful, and it shouldn’t be,” she said.
In Cancun, holding the big trophy she had never won, with $3million coming her way for her undefeated championship run, she made it clear she is a long way from finished, even if her season is. If we keep working this hard, she said to her team and her family, we’re going to win a lot more.
(Top photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)