Iga Swiatek crushed Jessica Pegula, 6-1 6-0, in the delayed final of the GNP Seguros WTA Finals in Cancun on Monday to land the season-ending championship title for the first time and regain her status at the top of the game, ending with the year-end World No 1 ranking for the second time in a row.
Coming back to World No 1, it's a dream come true, for sure. I would say I wasn't expecting that right now, this season. I was hoping that, maybe, next year is gonna be my year, but it seems like you know, just working hard and focusing on the right things at the end worked. So I'm really happy. Iga Świątek
“I’m just really happy and super proud of myself,” Swiatek said. “This week has been not easy, but I feel like it’s a kind of a reflection of the whole season. So I’m just happy that I could cope with everything well, and I, kind of, used my experience from all these years to perform well here.”
The 22-year old Pole capped another amazing season, recording more wins than in her record-breaking 2022, and, despite entering the tournament as the World No 2, dominated the round-robin stage before emphatically beating the woman who snatched the top ranking from her at the US Open, Aryna Sabalenka.
The Belarusian could only watch from the sidelines as Swiatek pipped her to the post to the year-ending top ranking to end Sabalenka’s 8-week reign as the World No 1.
“I really want to give credit to Iga,” Sabalenka said after her 6-3 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Pole in Sunday’s semi-final. “She adjusted well in these conditions. On this court, she was definitely way, way better than me. I struggled a lot. Overall, I think I had an incredible season.
“Even though I lost twice here in Cancun, I still want to leave this season on a positive note. I feel proud of myself. I made huge improvements this season. I really hope this is only the beginning.”
While it was a heartbreaking defeat for the 25-year old, Sabalenka has had an impressive year herself, playing at the highest level to make the semi-final or better at each of the four Grand Slams, while she also won her maiden Grand Slam title in Australia.
Swiatek’s focus against both Sabalenka and Pegula underlined the steely resolve of the young Pole to return to the rank she had held for 75 weeks since April 2022 after Ash Barty retired.
The Estadio Paradisus was full, a remarkable feat for a match scheduled on an extra day to complete the tournament, and Swiatek thanked the fans and her opponent in her victory speech during the trophy ceremony.
“Thank you, guys, for shouting our names and everything, even though this week wasn’t easy, you really made it special for us,” Swiatek said. “Jesse, I wanted to congratulate you for the whole season and for your consistency throughout. Hopefully, we both progress and play many more finals together and your team as well.”
The 22-year-old also thanked her family and team later in the speech.
“I want to thank my family and my team,” she said. “It’s not often when my dad is here, so thanks for coming and supporting me.
“The team that has been with me for the whole season, we’ve had many ups and downs, but this is for sure an up. And we’ll for sure have many more if we keep working like that.”
Pegula came into the final in impressive form, with a 4-0 Cancun winning record without dropping a set, taking out Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Maria Sakkari to win the Bacalar Group, and Coco Gauff in the semi-final, so the trophy match was expected to be a real fight, but Swiatek effectively demolished the American in short time.
The intensity, fast footwork and baseline aggression that were on display in her straightforward win over Sabalenka in the semi-finals continued against Pegula on Monday.
Swiatek took the first set in a swift 27 minutes, a daunting sign for Pegula, considering the Pole’s formidable 60-1 record when clinching the opening frame this season, and she sustained her momentum, breaking Pegula in the first game of the second.
“She played really solid,” Pegula said. “I felt like she really was putting a lot of pressure on me. And I think I just was overplaying a lot today. I don’t know why. But it just was one of those days where I felt like I was going for too much.”
Swiatek equalled Justine Henin’s record from 2007, by reaching the final while dropping only 19 games, and, after her win, she broke the record for the least games lost in a final by completely outplaying her opponent.
Both started the match by holding onto their serves, but it soon became one-way traffic as Swiatek’s resolve and resilience found answers to all the questions posed to her by Pegula.
Slowly but surely, the American became demoralised by the onslaught as the 2nd-seed won 5 consecutive games to take the first set, and then steamrollered her way to her 20th bagel set of the season to win in just 59 minutes.
Swiatek completed a remarkable end-of-season run, finally overtaking Sabalenka to the year-end No 1 ranking in a race with her 68th win of the year.
The 22-year-old finishes the year on 9,295 points, just 235 points ahead of Sabalenka, with Coco Gauff at a career-best No 3, although she is a distant third as she is more than 2,000 points behind the Belarusian, while Rybakina and Pegula complete the Top 5.
The only other change in the top 10 sees Ons Jabeur move up one spot to No 6, while Marketa Vondrousova drops one place to No 7 after failing to win any matches in Cancun.
Lower down the list and Beatriz Haddad Maia is up eight places to a career-best No 11 after she won the WTA Elite Trophy a week ago while runner-up Zheng Qinwen is also at a career-best No 15.
Belinda Bencic, who is yet to confirm if she will return to competitive tennis in 2024 after announcing her pregnancy last week, finishes the year at No 17.
Katie Boulter finishes the year as the top-ranked Britain as she sits at No 58 with Jodie Burrage at No 93.
Official WTA Rankings Top 20
- Iga Swiatek Poland 9,295 points
- Aryna Sabalenka 9,050
- Coco Gauff United States 6,580
- Elena Rybakina Kazakhstan 6,365
- Jessica Pegula United States 5,975
- Ons Jabeur Tunisia 4,195
- Marketa Vondrousova Czech Republic 4,075
- Karolina Muchova Czech Republic 3,651
- Maria Sakkari Greece 3,620
- Barbora Krejcikova Czech Republic 2,885
- Beatriz Haddad Maia Brazil 2,210
- Madison Keys United States 2,816
- Jelena Ostapenko Latvia 2,720
- Petra Kvitova Czech Republic 2,660
- Zheng Qinwen China 2,660
- Liudmila Samsonova – 2,650
- Belinda Bencic Switzerland 2,570
- Daria Kasatkina – 2,550
- Veronika Kudermetova – 2,520
- Caroline Garcia France – 2,095
Last year, Swiatek famously ran off with 37 straight wins, more than anyone else this century, and remained the undisputed World No 1 ranking in a league of her own, but this season she was challenged, and her 75-week run as the top player came to an end after the US Open.
Despite being visibly shaken, she did all the right things, saying she was in no rush to take the No 1 back from Sabalenka, and that her focus was to play more freely, to improve herself, both as a player and a person.
On Monday, she accomplished her ambitions a day after routing Sabalenka, and hoisted the trophy without dropping a set in Cancun against the best competition in the world.
“2022 was so amazing that I don’t know if it’s gonna be possible for me to repeat a season like that,” Swiatek admitted. “So I just didn’t feel at the end, like, I’m in the shadow anymore because I knew that I’m having another great season.
“And honestly, I kind of accepted that I’m not going to have a season like that, like in 2022, and I just looked forward.”
Dating back to Tokyo, her first event after the US Open, Swiatek went on to win 12 of her last 13 matches to finish the year, rolling to the title in Beijing and up for the challenges in Cancun that included a stellar field, rugged court conditions and appalling weather for most of the week.
“I learned my lesson, and this time I didn’t want [the No.1 ranking] to have an impact on me,” Swiatek said. “It did a little bit – it’s hard not to think about stuff like that – but, actually, when I went on court, I knew that I had to focus on different things.
“And, actually, the conditions here that were, kind of tricky, also helped me to just focus on my footwork, my shots, and that just kept me busy from thinking about all of that.”
Against Sabalenka in the semi-finals, Swiatek put in one of the most emphatic matches of her career, and then outdid that with a clinical dismantling of Pegula, a player who had beaten her twice this season.
“She’s been, in my mind, the one to beat the last couple years,” Pegula said. “She’s showing that even when she loses some matches, or doesn’t win the tournament, that she’s still bouncing right back and is playing at a high level every single week.
“That’s what a top player does, what a champion does, and I think she showed that.”
Swiatek completed the most dominant run in the year-end championships since the round-robin format was reintroduced in 2003, and it is a fitting end for the player with more wins, titles and victories over Top 10 opponents than anyone else on the tour.
“Coming back to World No 1, it’s a dream come true, for sure,” Swiatek said. “I would say I wasn’t expecting that right now, this season. I was hoping that, maybe, next year is gonna be my year, but it seems like you know, just working hard and focusing on the right things at the end worked. So I’m really happy.”
And with just cause, since, this past week, Swiatek tallied wins against 3 reigning major champions, posting straight-set victories over Australian Open champion Sabalenka, US Open champion Coco Gauff and Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova to become the youngest WTA Finals champion since Petra Kvitova won in Istanbul in 2011, and the second Polish champion at the event after Agnieszka Radwanska won in Singapore in 2015.
Plus she is back as the World No 1, a position that she has held with such grace and leadership.