Ashleigh Barty wasn’t burned out from tennis, but she didn’t want to deal with the regular grind of tour life any longer. Barty rolled through the Australian Open, shaking off the burdens of home-nation pressure in a dominant hardcourt display. When she chose to retire just when the 2022 Miami Open began, she did so not from burnout, but from a desire to seek new challenges. She went out on top, not as an athlete who had been worn down or conquered by her profession.
If burnout means emotional or holistic exhaustion, consider the use of the burn-in, a process which uses failure to test the capacity and capability of a system. Add a “g” to “burn-in” and you get “burning,” which describes the yearning Iga Swiatek has for tennis greatness.
A burn-in — not in scientific study but in sports (we’re being elastic here) — is the flourishing of an inner fire, the manifestation of a hunger to win. More than that, it is the responsible handling of that fire.
Lots of athletes are hungry. Lots of athletes have inner fire. Being able to use that fire properly is the challenge. The desire to win often burns so brightly that it rages out of control. A quick temper, or overly eager shots, or impatient responses to match-play situations, all get in the way of competitive quality and tour success.
The desire to win has to be married with the awareness of what winning requires, which is sometimes a measure of restraint. It is sometimes an ability to live with imperfection and failure. It is sometimes an awareness that the opponent is playing well, and that victory will have to be achieved by surviving, or by forcing errors and not by hitting spectacular shots.
A good “burn-in” is that marriage between hunger and understanding. It represents wanting to win, but not too much — not to the point where raw and untamed desire gets in the way of proper tactics, proper mindset, proper patterns and technique.
Iga Swiatek has found that marriage.
Remember when she was visibly upset during her rocky, 3-set win over Kaia Kanepi in the Australian Open quarterfinals? Many people had not seen Swiatek get that visibly angry, so it might have been unsettling to some. Yet, it always felt (to me) that Swiatek was having a conversation with herself. She was pushing herself to be better. She knew that success on a non-clay surface — also the main surface used in pro tennis — was a necessary gateway to career improvement.
Anger should not be assumed to be a negative emotion. It can fuel positive performance. Swiatek’s ability to ride the emotional waves of that Kanepi match and win it in three did not lead to an Australian Open title, but it did lead to the ability to cope in difficult match situations.
Note that before Swiatek got on a roll in the back end of Indian Wells and then throughout Miami, she won three straight 3-setters at Indian Wells — against Anna Kalinina, Clara Tauson, and Angelique Kerber — in which she lost the first set. Winning by coping, not by dominating, set the table for Swiatek in March. The coping came first, then came the dominance of the past week, punctuated by a majestic thumping of four-time hardcourt major champion Naomi Osaka in Saturday’s final.
Ash Barty didn’t burn out, but Iga Swiatek has executed a brilliant “burn-in” for a tennis player.
As a result, Swiatek owns the WTA at the present moment. She wasted no time becoming No. 1 not only as a technical point of fact, but as a living and genuine reality everyone will respect.