Iga Swiatek walked into the 2022 French Open with a 28-match win streak and all the pressure in the world. Anything less than the title would have been a disappointment for not only the Pole herself but also for millions of fans around the world. In a manner befitting someone ranked No. 1, however, Swiatek delivered, dropping just one set en route to the title.
By the time the 21-year-old lifted the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup, she had accumulated a 35-match unbeaten run, equalling Venus Williams' record for the longest win-streak in the 21st century. She beat three seeded players back-to-back to close out the tournament: Jessica Pegula, Daria Kasatkina and Coco Gauff.
In those three matches, the highest number of games she lost in a single match was five -- against Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula's big-hitting should have troubled Iga Swiatek in theory, but with the form the Pole was in, the 11th seed stood no chance. Gauff and Kasatkina could only win four and three games respectively before they fell to the two-time champion.
Kasatkina looked good in the first four games of the first set, but lost 10 of the last 11. Gauff, meanwhile, needed almost half an hour to even get on the board against the World No. 1.
In fact, the closest anyone came to troubling Iga Swiatek over the last two weeks was Qinwen Zheng, who took the first set of their fourth-round match-up in a tie-break. But aided by some unfortunate health problems on the Chinese's part, the Pole ended up steamrolling her in the next two sets, losing only two of the final 12 games.
Alison Riske was so desperate to get on the scoreboard that she celebrated in full earnest after winning a single game late in the second set of their second-round meeting.
The American went on to add one more game to her tally before being sent on her way. Lesia Tsurenko, like many others this season, did not know what hit her as she was tossed away by the Pole in her opener with a bagel to boot.
In a nutshell, this was a tournament where Iga Swiatek did everything. She won convincingly early on when the rest of the top seeds in the women's draw were falling by the wayside. She also won ugly when that was the need of the hour.
As the tournament began heating up and the pressure skyrocketed, she kept her cool and finished matches off quickly without falling into a pit of nerves that has consumed many champions of the sport. All of this begs the question, how important is this win, to both Iga Swiatek and the rest of the women's tennis world?
For the 21-year-old, the win must have come as a relief. Swiatek referenced the pressure of expectations during the trophy ceremony and the unexpected nature of her win in 2020. The Pole will likely never be under the same kind of pressure again in her life. Imagine winning five tournaments on the trot, barely losing a set along the way, and still being expected to win the sixth just to prove yourself.
And to add even more pressure, the sixth event just happened to be a Grand Slam, the same tournament Iga Swiatek won as a teenager without any of the expectations that burdened her this time around.
A loss in Paris would have been enough to invalidate all her success in the lead-up by those who see Slams as the be-all and end-all in tennis greatness. Even a runner-up finish would have been construed as the World No. 1 "bottling" her chance, irrespective of how hard she fought.
All four WTA 1000 tournaments she won prior to the stint in Paris would have been forgotten had Iga Swiatek stumbled at Roland Garros. Fortunately, she did not, and neither did women's tennis as a result.
In recent times, only the pressure Ashleigh Barty faced at the 2022 Australian Open can be compared with what Iga Swiatek was subjected to at the French Open
While speaking of Iga Swiatek, one cannot help but think of Ashleigh Barty, her predecessor at the summit of the rankings. The Australian was under almost as much pressure at Melbourne Park earlier this year, and just like the Pole, Barty handled it with the calmness of a champion.
Racing to the title without dropping a set, Barty became the first home-grown player to win the singles title Down Under in 44 years and finally looked like the player the WTA tour could rally behind after years of chaos. But mere weeks after claiming her third Grand Slam title, the 25-year-old shocked the world by announcing her retirement.
During the announcement, Barty revealed that the decision had been a long time coming and that she had already made the choice to retire following one final hurrah at Melbourne Park. What that means, in retrospect, is that the former World No. 1 wasn't really under pressure at all, at least internally.
Whether she had won or not, it wouldn't have made a difference to Barty. But that was not a luxury that Iga Swiatek was afforded. Of course, personally, she would have survived and her achievements would have remained in the record books.
Unlike Barty, though, the Pole would have had to face the crowds once more, fully knowing that a portion of the audience, however small, regarded her as someone who could not handle the pressure of being the favorite. Which makes it all the more significant that the two-time Major winner did not let things come to that.
Women's tennis has, for a significant period of time, missed a top-ranked player who felt and played like they were invincible. The last time was perhaps in 2016, when Serena Williams completed a 186-week long reign as the World No. 1. In the years since, the position has changed hands 16 times before being claimed by Iga Swiatek. None of the six women who held the top spot during this timeframe, except Barty, lasted more than 50 consecutive weeks.
Other than Simona Halep (48 weeks), no one else even managed to keep it for 25 consecutive weeks. As of today, Swiatek has held the No. 1 position for 10 weeks and has a 4000-point lead over second-placed Anett Kontaveit.
Iga Swiatek is already mathematically guaranteed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking until the first week of September. She is likely to keep it for much longer than that.
This does not mean Swiatek will never lose again. Of course she will, but when she does, it will be seen as a shock, especially if it comes in the early rounds of the tournament. The same courtesy that is currently extended to Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal when they lose will be given to Iga Swiatek as well, and that is what women's tennis needs right now.
There is so much unpredictability around her that Iga Swiatek needs to be a ruthless World No. 1 who crushes opponents nine times out of 10. Winning the 2022 French Open is the first step towards achieving that.
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