MIAMI: Iga Swiatek was once a bashful, teenage hard-rock fan who watched Rafael Nadal in awe before storming to a memorable Grand Slam triumph at a bleak, Covid-hit autumn edition of the French Open in 2020.
On Monday, she will be the new world number one.
With Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” in her headphones, the Pole took to the clay courts of Roland Garros in October 2020.
There was hardly anyone to applaud the teenager in that first year of the Covid pandemic as she swept to her first Grand Slam trophy without dropping a set to become the youngest winner since Monica Seles lifted the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in 1992.
On Saturday, under the Florida sun, there were crowds to cheer the 20-year-old as she swept past four-time major winner Naomi Osaka in the Miami Open final, two days before officially taking her place at the top of the world hierarchy, on the throne abandoned by Ashleigh Barty.
It was on the hard courts of the Australian Open in Melbourne that Swiatek played her first Grand Slam tournament three years ago, reaching the second round.
A few months later, she only lasted 45 minutes in a fourth round defeat to Simona Halep at her first French Open.
Everything started to come together for the youngster from Warsaw in 2020. A fourth round finish in Melbourne, third round at the US Open and then the delayed French Open - her very first title on the main circuit with victory over Sofia Kenin in the final.
Poland’s first Grand Slam singles champion was propelled into the top 20 in the world.
Another turning point followed as Swiatek, who was still a diligent high school student in 2019, graduated in 2020.
A relief for her, but also for her coach Piotr Sierzputowski.
“(Before) tennis was not the main part of her life. It was difficult. Imagine, I had to practice at 7 in the morning, because she had to go to school afterwards. And she arrived tired, because she had had to study at night,” explained Sierzputowski.
A situation that now belongs to the past even if, on the courts, the Pole remains studious, with in particular a psychologist who helps her prepare for matches.
“She made me smarter. Thanks to her, my confidence level is higher,” Swiatek said of her psychologist.
“Mental strength is particularly important. At the top level, everyone is capable of playing well, but the best are those who are strongest in their head.”
‘Beast of competition’
The Pole does not lack strength, being described as a “beast of competition” by Sierzputowski.
“When she enters the court, she is ready for anything .. she has hunger for victory,” explained the coach before Swiatek ended their working partnership at the end of 2021.
Born in Warsaw, Swiatek took up tennis because she wanted to beat her big sister.
It is a competitive spirit no doubt inherited from her father, Tomacz Swiatek, a former rower who represented Poland at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
This early pugnacity allowed her to win her first professional tournament she played, in 2016 in Stockholm, on the secondary circuit, when she came through the qualifiers.
Two years later, after several months without tennis due to an injured ankle, she lifted the junior trophy at Wimbledon in singles and at Roland Garros in doubles.
Now, with six titles on the main circuit – including three in a row this year in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami – she is the new world number one.