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French Open favorite Iga Swiatek is on a ‘Serena-like’ streak

Iga Swiatek cruised past Lesia Tsurenko in her first-round match at the French Open. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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PARIS — The French Open has barely gotten underway, yet six of the top 10 women’s seeds already have been ousted, including defending champion Barbora Krejcikova.

Reigning Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty wasn’t in the field, having abruptly retired in March at age 25. Reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu is already out of it after she lost her second-round match Wednesday.

But in recently minted world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, women’s tennis may well have found the champion of staying power it has lacked since Serena Williams claimed her 23rd major in 2017.

Since February, the 20 year-old Swiatek has been the game’s most dominant player, as sure-footed on hard courts as she is on her beloved clay, claiming five consecutive titles in Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Rome.

Swiatek (pronounced SCHVON-tek) burst to prominence by winning the 2020 French Open as an unseeded teen without conceding a set, toppling then No. 1 Simona Halep en route. She is also an avid reader (currently consumed with Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”); owner of a cat named Grappa; a fan of AC/DC, Pink Floyd and nearly all classic rock; a dabbler on the ukulele, a gift from the sports psychologist who travels with her; and a curious young woman who believes the richness of life lies beyond the bounds of a tennis court.

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But it’s what Swiatek has achieved on court of late that has made her the prohibitive favorite to win this year’s French Open, opening her Paris campaign on a 28-match winning streak.

Even before the slew of first- and second-round upsets wreaked havoc on the field, she was the player no woman wanted to face. She was also the unanimous pick to win the French Open of ESPN’s 13-member panel of tennis analysts.

“I think she goes in as the biggest favorite since [2014], when Serena Williams was the dominant player,” said Pam Shriver, who won four French Open doubles titles during her Hall of Fame career and is covering the tournament for Tennis Channel. “Her game is built around the forehand, just being able to punish you to both corners. … To win this many tournaments in a row, beating virtually all of your fellow top-10ers and beating a few of them a couple of times, it’s really Serena-like.”

Though Swiatek skipped Madrid’s clay-court tournament this month with an ailing right shoulder, she showed no lingering effects in Monday’s first-round match, breezing past Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-0, in just 54 minutes.

“She’s playing just incredible now,” Tsurenko said. “Almost all of the shots are like very close to the lines, which makes [it] very tough. To create something [against her] is very tough.”

Asked afterward whether she had seen a fan’s sign that read, “Swiatek may never lose again!” she smiled.

“I’m pretty sure that I am going to lose at some point,” Swiatek said. “I also want to be ready for that and be aware that there are many players out there who can play great tennis and who are really dangerous.”

Like Rafael Nadal, who won the first four of his men’s-record 21 Grand Slam titles on the French Open’s clay before adapting his game to triumph on Wimbledon’s grass and the U.S. Open and Australian hard courts, Swiatek has worked intently to shore up weaknesses in her repertoire.

While her strength is her forehand, she has improved her backhand and bolstered her serve. And on clay, a surface that trips up players unaccustomed to sliding, her movement is a terrific asset.

But what has elevated her game, she believes, is the aggressive mind-set that she has adopted under the tutelage of her new coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski.

“For sure he helped me to change my attitude toward my game,” Swiatek said in March. “He convinced me to just play more aggressively. Before I didn’t really think it was my kind of game. Right now I feel like most of the success that I had this season was because of that.”

It’s not just the caliber of her strokes, tactics and footwork that make Swiatek a must-watch player. She competes with palpable joy in the game — a love of competition and hunger to improve that’s reminiscent of Nadal, who has long been her idol.

She has studied his game, just as she has studied his humility, and is making a conscious effort to emulate both, as she explained in a column she wrote this year for BBC, describing how “down to earth” Nadal was when she first met him.

“He was really humble and it doesn’t seem like the success has changed him,” Swiatek wrote. “If I’m going to win more Grand Slam titles and have more success in my career then I hope I will be like Rafa.”

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Just a few years removed from the top junior ranks, winning Wimbledon’s 2018 girls’ title and that year’s French Open girls’ doubles title, Swiatek hasn’t lost her tennis fandom.

She vividly remembers the awe she felt attending her first pro tournament in her native Poland as a young fan, as well as the nerves she battled as a ball kid a few years later, worried she wouldn’t be able to throw the tennis ball all the way to Caroline Wozniacki.

She keeps the player autographs she collected in her family’s attic. She blushes when hearing compliments from other players, and she spoke openly about weeping nearly all night in her Miami hotel room when she learned that Barty was retiring.

She considered Barty a benchmark for so much she aspires to — the variety of her strokes, the completeness of her game, the Grand Slam titles on clay, grass and hard court. And she spent weeks in the offseason practicing how to counter Barty’s devilish slice, having lost to Barty in their two previous meetings.

“I was crying for a long time,” Swiatek told reporters the next morning as the Miami Open got underway. “There was lot of confusion in me, for sure. But also sadness. … When I think of the player that is really complete in terms of physicality, mentality, tennis-wise, I always thought of Ash. And I always looked up to her. I mean, I still do.”

“On the other hand, there are many players who I have great competition against. We’re not going to be bored.”