Sitting in the driver’s seat of a swanky, brand new, flash red sports car, Iga Swiatek looked genuinely unsettled. The car was the prize she earned – along with the ranking points and a cheque for $93,823 – for winning the WTA 500 Stuttgart Open.
The expression on her face, as she listened to instructions from a co-passenger while navigating the car down a ramp, was one of discomfort. It was perhaps the first time in the week she had looked out of her comfort zone.
But that’s understandable. She has owned a driving license only for six months. The 20-year-old’s open road, however, is the tennis court. She’s been navigating through opponents with ease. So much so that the new World No 1 is on a 23-match unbeaten run.
And in Germany, as Aryna Sabalenka’s forehand sailed long on Championship Point, Swiatek pumped her fist and then held up four fingers – one for each of the four events she’s won on the trot.
A few weeks ago, when Ashleigh Barty suddenly announced her retirement to make Swiatek, then ranked second in the world, the new No 1, the Pole was unsure about how she would handle it. Those doubts have now been erased. All she had to do was back herself.
“I still feel like every day is different and some moments are tricky,” she said to WTA Insider.
“I don’t feel like I’m on autopilot, but for sure I feel like I can use my skills better and better and play more efficient tennis and be more smart on the court.”
It’s an attitude she’s developed over time, and that self-belief has been backed by results.
The 23-match winning run she’s on right now puts her level with what former World No 1 Naomi Osaka managed in 2020 to 2021. Only former World No 1s Justine Henin, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Venus Williams have done better since the turn of the millennium – Venus has the record of 35 matches on the trot dating back to 2000.
In these 23 matches, she’s dropped just five sets and won titles at the Masters events in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, and now the title in Stuttgart. Claiming the Sunshine Double – Indian Wells and Miami – made her only the fourth woman after Steffi Graf, Kim Clijsters and Azarenka to do so, and the youngest of them all.
To pile on a few more stats to put in perspective how remarkable her run has been, she’s lost just one set in her past 15 matches. And she’s won each of the last seven tour finals she’s reached, starting with the 2019 French Open – making her the first player from Poland (male or female) to win a Grand Slam.
Surely that won’t be her last.
Since Serena Williams left the tour on maternity leave in 2017, women’s tennis has not had a player step up and consistently stake a claim at the No 1 spot and the Majors over a sustained period across seasons. Osaka and Barty did provide hope for a new world order, but the former took a step away from the tour to look after her mental health, and Barty – the then only active player apart from Serena Williams to have won a Slam on three different surfaces – had decided to retire.
It’s not certain yet that Swiatek will conquer the women’s game and bring an end to a roller coaster Grand Slam winners’ list. But the Pole has made the transition to clay courts surprisingly quickly after playing on hard courts in the Billie Jean King Cup just days before Stuttgart.
“Well, this is another tournament where I surprised myself,” she told reporters after winning her seventh title.
“That I can do it and basically that I don’t need to be 100 percent perfectly prepared or I don’t need to feel 100 percent to still play really good tennis and play solid matches. The transition was pretty quick and I had a lot of doubts. I just didn’t want to really focus on that and I just focused on what I have influence on. So, yeah, this is another tournament that has shown me that I can do it no matter what.”
The only time during the week where she had been challenged was in the semi-final against Russian player Liudmila Samsonova. Swiatek came from behind to win 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5 in three hours and three minutes – the longest match of her career.
And then she brushed aside Sabalenka 6-2, 6-2 in the final.
On court, she’s a powerful and clean striker with a penchant for finding tight angles. She moves well isn’t afraid of charging up to the net and playing a delicate volley.
Off court though, the endearing Pole has become a bit of a meme queen.
“Honestly, I was already a meme queen at my middle school. But that was pretty mean from the other kids. But I was. Maybe that’s another thing I was born to do. I don’t know if I should be happy or sad about that,” she told WTA Insider.
On social media, a video has been doing the rounds of her accidentally spilling her drink on court – “I saw the cameraman and I thought, ‘Shoot, he must be laughing,’” she said.
But Swiatek, a fan of rock music, also explained her hesitation of going behind the wheel.
“It’s a pretty weird position that I’m in because I just did my driver’s license six months ago,” she added.
The interviewer in the WTA’s podcast revealed that the car company’s executive was just as alarmed as Swiatek, as she had never seen a player drive the car off the ramp at such speed.
Perhaps that’s one thing the youngster will have to work on outside tennis. On court, she’s been cruising.