'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (2024)

Iga Swiatek doesn’t win every tennis tournament she plays — but she wins the ones she wins in a way that makes nearly everyone watching her wonder how she ever loses.

There are plenty of verbs to describe what Swiatek did to the spirited but ultimately overmatched Jasmine Paolini of Italy, on her way to winning the French Open final 6-2, 6-1 in a match whose outcome was never in doubt.

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Overwhelmed. Decimated. Crushed.

They all sound kind of mean, because they have nothing to do with Paolini, the Italian making her first Grand Slam final at 28. She is in fine but frustrated company with the ranks of players who have been vanquished with minimum fuss since Swiatek started a run of domination at the French Open that has already garnered comparisons to the early years of Rafael Nadal. No one had seen someone play the modern version — his version, now her version — of tennis on clay.

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (1)

Iga Swiatek has proved relentless at the French Open. (Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

No wonder. This is Swiatek’s third straight French Open triumph, and fourth in five years, a 6-2, 6-1 victory that will further cement her position as the standard that every other woman clutching a racket will have to find a way to match. She’s won 31 of her last 32 matches at Roland Garros and is 35-2 overall. She has spent 24 of the last 26 months as the world No 1, losing the top spot briefly to Aryna Sabalenka last September before snatching it back in the final weeks of the season with an eight-match winning streak.

But as it always is with tennis greats, it’s the manner in which she wins nearly all of her matches here that really lands.

Grand Slam tournaments are long, in this case 15 days of rising and falling tension levels, of managing energy and surviving one match after another until there are no more left to play. It was only last week, but feels like a lifetime ago, that Swiatek was locked in the match of the tournament: A three-set, second-round battle against Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion just starting to hit her stride in her comeback from maternity leave.

Down 5-2 in the third set, Swiatek had faced a match point and then had to break Osaka’s serve to avoid elimination that day. It really was going to happen, and then in an instant, it wasn’t.

It didn’t matter that she’d been pushed around the court for more than hour.An untouchable forehand winner here, an Osaka error there, and Swiatek was off and running, a boulder rolling down the side of a mountain, that evening and for the next week and a half.

It didn’t matter whether Osaka, Czech Marie Bouzkova, Russian Anastasia Potapova, or the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champions, Marketa Vondrousova and Coco Gauff, or indeed Paolini, were on the other side of the net. At some point, usually pretty early on but regardless of what the scoreboard and the crowd suggested might be happening, Swiatek came at all of them with a ferocity that spun them into a washing machine and spat them out at match point, defeated.

“I get better with every match,” Swiatek said.

GO DEEPERGame, Set, Match: Iga Swiatek beats Jasmine Paolini to win fourth French Open

“To play you here is the toughest challenge in the sport,” Paolini said to Swiatek during the trophy ceremony.

“As always, she played at a tough level,” a slightly dazed but still determined Gauff said after losing 6-2, 6-4.

“She’s just too strong here,” Vondrousova had said, as though Swiatek almost had some kind of unfair advantage, after the Pole bagelled her in the first set before allowing her a measly two games in the second.

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (4)

Swiatek has developed an ability to make herself immune to pressure. (Robert Szaniszlo / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For 20 years, everyone on the men’s tour said all of that about Rafael Nadal. A diminished Nadal played what he said is likely to be his final French Open this year, losing in the first round for the first time ever to Alexander Zverev, 14 titles later.

Like clockwork, Swiatek, who grew up worshipping Nadal and still does, has grabbed the baton from him. It is still early. She is just 23 years old and still has 10 titles to go to catch up to him, but she is also entering that sweet spot.

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“We’ll see in 14 years if the journey is similar,” she said with a laugh earlier this week when asked about the comparison.

Already, it is.

Like Swiatek, Nadal was just 19 when he won his first French Open title in 2005. He won the next three, before an injury stopped that run in 2009.

When he won his fourth, he started winning in a way that seemed almost sad*stic. That year, 2008, Roger Federer managed to win just four games in the last match of the tournament and Nadal solidified his position as, when healthy, the best player on earth.

This is the stage of her career that Swiatek seems poised to enter, when the winning doesn’t come easily since it requires plenty of commitment and work, but sure looks like it does. She has made herself such a permanent fixture at the top that it makes it hard to forget that she hasn’t always been here.

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (5)

Iga Swiatek so often gets on a roll that turns into an avalanche. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

Swiatek carried her talent and her fame almost reluctantly and uncomfortably at first.

Daria Abramowicz, originally her sports psychologist but now also Swiatek’s sounding board and near-constant traveling companion, has talked of how unstable Swiatek was when she met her in her late teenage years.

“There was a fire I had never seen before,” Abramowicz, who had worked with world-class athletes in sailing and other sports in Poland before latching on with Swiatek.

But Swiatek was also a perfectionist who equated her success on the tennis court with her self-worth and had to learn that perfect is an impossible standard to meet, especially in tennis. Thoughts of losing and its ramifications plagued her. She could descend into tears on the court after losses. When she sat behind a microphone and spoke publicly, her eyes blinked incessantly, a common nervous twitch.

“It is impossible to become a champion when you don’t have a fundamental joy,” Abramowicz said in an interview in 2021.

The next year, Swiatek let a 37-match winning streak become something of an albatross. When it ended at Wimbledon in a third-round loss on the grass she is still trying to figure out, she experienced it almost as a relief.

GO DEEPERIga Swiatek's 100 weeks as world No 1: The streak, the slams, the bagels

Swiatek has worked hard to figure out how to find joy in the journey and the inevitable pitfalls of her chosen profession, micro-pitfalls and macro ones. She still has all the negative thoughts she used to, but now she understands that they are just thoughts. They go into your head and then they go out.

“We all come from different places,” she said on Saturday evening.

Sometimes, in the middle of a match, her level dips, her opponent rises, the scoreboard looks uncomfortable.

“This is tennis,” she says. And she keeps telling herself that she has the tennis to prevail: she just needs to get it to come out. So much is made of the players that can trouble her being huge, flat ball strikers — Osaka, Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Jelena Ostapenko — that her own power, and the scarcely believable levels of topspin she applies to her forehand, get somewhat forgotten. She might watch balls from those players skid and scorch through the court, but she can make the ball rear at them like a snake, over and over, safe in her aggression because of all that margin from all that spin.

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (7)

Swiatek will be targeting a Roland Garros quadruple in 2025. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

Against Osaka, when it seemed like the end was upon her, that meant playing points, without regard for the score, knowing that they were both four-time Grand Slam champions, but she had played much more Grand Slam tennis than Osaka in the last few years. Doubts, a wobble, would come. When they did, she didn’t let them leave her.

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In the second set against Coco Gauff in the semifinal, she fell down 3-1 and Gauff appeared to be getting her teeth into the match, galvanising herself through a dispute with the umpire and through the crowd.

Swiatek paid little attention. She told herself that she had broken Gauff’s serve a few times already, and there was no reason she wasn’t going to do it again and even up the score.

She did do it again, and lost just one more game.

Paolini got the first service break in the final and went ahead 2-1. The stadium came alive. Maybe this afternoon was going to be different.

Not a chance. Swiatek dialed in. In the remainder of that first set, she won 20 points. Paolini won four.

Swiatek won 11 of the next 12 games. And then she was kneeling on the clay, pumping her arms, climbing the stadium steps to hug her coaches and family, the scoreboard below her, beaming out yet another win.

“I love this place,” she said a few minutes later with the trophy secure. “I wait every year to come back here.”

(Top photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (8)'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (9)

Matthew Futterman is an award-winning veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.”Before coming to The Athletic in 2023, he worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently writing a book about tennis, "The Cruelest Game: Agony, Ecstasy and Near Death Experiences on the Pro Tennis Tour," to be published by Doubleday in 2026. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattfutterman

'I get better every match': How Iga Swiatek learned to be inevitable (2024)

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