London | Swiatek’s difficult year results in triumph

Iga Swiatek dominated the women’s game in 2022, but the World No 1 fell off her perch after the US Open this season, when she failed to defend her ranking points as the defending champion, giving Aryna Sabalenka, leader of the pursuing pack, the chance to try out the top spot.

Halfway through the year, I was carrying the burden of - I don't like this term and I try to avoid it - maintaining the ranking. Aryna Sabalenka had many chances to jump over me, but she finally did. Then I felt free. It was a bit easier for me to concentrate solely on my game again. Iga Świątek

Swiatek’s season wasn’t exactly shabby, though, and she did sit out Miami nursing a rib injury, and pulled out of Rome with a right thigh issue, which allowed Sabalenka, the newly-minted Australian Open champion, the opportunity to eat away at her ranking lead.

By the year-end, though, Swiatek regained her No 1 standing and was the tour leader in matches, with 68, and 6 titles won, padding those totals by walking away with the title at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun.

She won the WTA Player of the Year award, named for a second successive season, having won the French Open for a third time to take her Grand Slam tally to four, and finishing the year by claiming her first WTA Finals crown and regaining her top spot in the rankings.

In fact, the 22-year-old Pole has become the first player to be named WTA Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons since Serena Williams, who achieved it from 2012 to 2015.

It is hardly a coincidence that Tomasz Wiktorowski was named Coach of the Year, as his on-court influence has guided Swiatek through a complicated season, as well as over the past two years.

As an aside, Storm Hunter & Elise Mertens picked up the Doubles Team of the Year award, China’s Zheng Qinwen was named Most Improved Player, and Russian Mirra Andreeva won Newcomer of the Year.

Elina Svitolina, who returned to tennis in April following a maternity break, was named Comeback Player of the Year after reaching the Roland Garros quarter-finals and matching her best Grand Slam result by getting to the Wimbledon semis.

Aryna Sabalenka is named ITF World Champion because of her better efforts at the Grand Slams this year, but lost to Iga Swiatek in Cancun and relinquished her No 1 ranking after just 8 weeks at the top

© Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Swiatek has not picked up the ITF World Champion award, though, which she received last year, and despite being the year-ending World No 1, as that accolade has gone to Sabalenka, which has surprised fans.

The 25-year-old Belarusian had the best season of her career, and was recognised for her efforts at the 4 Grand Slams.

She won one major, played the final at another, and two more semi-finals, collecting a total of 4860 points from the Grand Slams, and while Swiatek also won a major, she failed to get past the quarter-finals at any of the other majors in 2023, amassing only 2910 points from Grand Slams this year.

It is not the first time that the year-end No 1 has not received the ITF award, with Simona Halep finishing 2017 as the top-ranked women, but Garbiñe Muguruza landed the ITF World Champion award as just one example.

The rationale was that the Spaniard had won Wimbledon and played in the quarter-finals at the Australian Open, and although Halep made a major final and a quarter-final appearance, she lost in the 1st-round of two other majors.

Other occurrences include 2012, when Serena Williams received the ITF World Champion award although Victoria Azarenka ended the year as the World No 1, and in 2011, when Petra Kvitova got the award while Caroline Wozniacki was No 1.

Iga Swiatek lifted the Billie Jean King Trophy after defeating Jessica Pegula in the singles final at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun 2023, and reclaimed her No 1 ranking

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Swiatek continues to set more records and grows in stature, but admits it has not been easy.

“This has been the most difficult year of my career, although my possibilities are also increasing,” she said recently. ”What seemed complicated to me two years ago, doesn’t seem so complicated now.

“It’s not just about adapting to situations, since I started the season as No 1 and then lost that position, but also injuries.

“For me it has been another year playing at the highest level, so I didn’t even have time to go home and rest.

“There are moments when the matches are a bit monotonous, moments where you feel that the next tournament won’t be something special. But then when I step on the court, those thoughts disappear,” Swiatek added. “I always want to win, every athlete has that in their blood, or at least they should. We want to show what we can do and that is stronger than any other feeling.

“Now I am more effective, and I reach the later rounds of tournaments more frequently, in a way the fans can trust me and appreciate it.

“Of course, I don’t promise that it will be like this all the time, because careers can take different paths, tennis is a sport where you can’t win all the time.

“It is said that it is a sport of mistakes and defeats, so the important thing is not to get frustrated and keep working,” Swiatek concluded.

She also has revealed that she ‘carried a burden’ of keeping the World No 1 ranking throughout the year, and admitted to feeling ‘free’ after Sabalenka finally managed to take over her top spot.

After Swiatek lost in the US Open round-of-16 and failed to defend her points in New York, Sabalenka learned she was guaranteed to replace the Pole at the top spot after the Major, and, on 11 September, Swiatek was toppled after spending 75 consecutive weeks as the World No 1.

“Halfway through the year, I was carrying the burden of – I don’t like this term and I try to avoid it – maintaining the ranking,” she told SportoweFakty. “Aryna Sabalenka had many chances to jump over me, but she finally did. Then I felt free. It was a bit easier for me to concentrate solely on my game again.”

Following a disappointing US Open, Swiatek’s confidence was shaken and when she returned to action in Tokyo, she still wasn’t looking at her best as she surprisingly lost to Veronika Kudermetova in the quarter-final.

Then, she rebounded, and, after winning back-to-back titles in Beijing and the WTA Finals, Swiatek returned to the World No 1 ranking.

“In Warsaw, I had a great training block,” she explained. “I went back to the basics and started playing the way I like best.

“After two weeks of break, I thought: ‘OK, I trained, I did a great job, so now I have to show everyone that I have reset. That it should be easier.’ I went out on the court in Tokyo in challenging conditions and – well – fear appeared.

“I felt like everyone was watching me. It overwhelmed me. I gathered the whole team. I said I needed 100% support, including emotional support.

“I asked them not to judge me because I probably wouldn’t play very well and, maybe, I would have to bite the court in every match instead of playing freely. I got this support, thanks to which I felt more confident from match to match,” Swiatek said.

Iga Swiatek, seen here with the Chris Evert Trophy, edged Aryna Sabalenka off the top spot to finish as the year-end World No 1

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Pole is not afraid of speaking her mind, and has criticised the WTA over contradicting mental health support claims, suggesting the organisation is not keeping the best interest of the top players at heart.

She has spoken several times about the length as well as the physical and mental demands of the pro tour, and, next year, the calendar and schedule will be even tighter as there will be 10 WTA 1000 tournaments, meaning more mandatory events, while 2 WTA 1000 tournaments are extending into two weeks with larger draws in a year in which the Olympics are also taking place.

“The calendar is changing towards even more duties, even greater expenditure of energy that we will have to devote while participating in tournaments, because the tournaments are also extended,” Swiatek told Eurosport Poland. “It is simply not conducive to what the WTA promotes in other aspects, i.e. mental health, life balance in any way, physical health. I would make decisions that would be more conducive to what they promote and support.”

She fears players’ mental and physical well-being may be negatively impacted.

“We’re gonna have much more mandatory tournaments and it’s gonna have a huge negative impact on our health and well-being,” she said in Cancun. “I’m 22, and I’ve played two of the most intense seasons in my life and I already feel, like, it’s gonna be tough for me to continue for so many years ahead if WTA is gonna go that way to increase the amount of mandatory tournaments.

“Most of the 1000 tournaments are going to be two weeks in future years, which is also gonna, kind of, affect our time at home, and time in between the tournaments.”

Cancun was another problem, with many players criticising the late announcement of the WTA Finals venue, the poor temporary court surface, and the appalling weather.

“The tournament in Cancun showed that I am able to concentrate and play good tennis in any conditions, even when I feel that I cannot fully demonstrate what I have trained,” Swiatek said. “Another thing is that we competed in conditions that were not very comfortable.

“The WTA decisions caused us frustration and tension, but I couldn’t think about them during the matches, so I didn’t talk much about them during the tournament.

“They [other players] openly talked about it during the event, so it’s clear that the displeasure was pretty evident.”

Swiatek, who has been a longtime proponent of actually consulting players before making decisions, came through it all and dominated Jessica Pegula in the final to land the $3,078,000 prize cheque, the Pole’s biggest payday of her career so far, which propelled her into the Top 20 of the all-time prize money winners in women’s tennis, and moving her ahead of Naomi Osaka.

The 22-year old insists the money is not her chief driving force, saying that titles mean more to her.

“Money isn’t my motivation, but, the tricky thing is I earned it really on court, and other players earned it mostly from endorsements so there’s a difference,” she said of her peers in 2022. “I’m pretty happy that my life changed so much that I can compete at the highest level, and earn so much money from it because this is also something that is really helping us appreciate the sport we have.”

22-year old Iga Swiatek turned a difficult year into a triumph

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Swiatek took to social media recently, posting on Instagram: “What a season that was… I saw, did and learned so much. Before I’ll start my much needed vacation, I would like to leave here some words of appreciation, gratitude and some thoughts.

“I would like to thank my team. I wouldn’t be in this place without you. I want to thank everyone who supports me every day through the ups and downs of every season.

“And last but not least… I want to thank the amazing women I compete with on tour. Thanks to you, I constantly want to be a better player. Every one of us has our own story and we can tell those stories together through our sport. I’m grateful for you and for this opportunity.

The Pole signed off with an inspirational message, writing: “The best things happen to us when… we stop chasing them. #almostoff.”

A footnote on the Ukrainian ribbon Swiatek wore on her cap in support of Ukraine since Russia invaded the country, which she stopped wearing in October, and was asked why.

“I think this ribbon helped a lot at the beginning, when I wanted to show that I am consistent when it comes to remembering Ukrainians, and what is happening, because social memory is short after all,” she said. “But recently there has been a lot of hate, and a lot of comments that simply judged me.

“People were even saying that I am not Polish. I think it started to generate more negative emotions than positive reactions, and we decided that the ribbon wasn’t the best idea anymore.

“However, we still intend to support Ukraine and, I think, this is the most important thing. And with what has already happened, wearing the ribbon and the charity match in Krakow, I hope that I have encouraged Poles to help.

“Besides, there was no need for encouragement, because as a nation we were really united and did a lot,” Swiatek told Super Express – Sport.

Last year, Swiatek organised a charity event for Ukraine in Krakow. In one of her interviews, Swiatek even said that the WTA would have sent a stronger message to Russia had they banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing when the invasion happened.

Now, in the off-season and after a holiday in the Maldives, Swiatek is preparing to appear for Poland in the United Cup, which begins on 29 December in Australia.



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