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Swiatek gets an education; expect her to learn, but not all at once

Matt Zemek

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You can see the immense talent and ability flowing from the mind and the racquet of Iga Swiatek.

She is an electric clay-court player. She has a diverse arsenal of shots. She can play with different spins and trajectories. She moves very fluidly and naturally. She understands the geometry of clay-court tennis. She is a natural on this surface, and her 2020 Roland Garros title — won at age 19 — is all you need in order to confirm that assertion.

There was nothing inherently problematic about winning Roland Garros the way Iga Swiatek won it. Winning a major represents the attainment of ultimate success in tennis; it is an act of conquest over all problems and difficulties. Who cares HOW a major title is won? It’s a championship.

Let’s just say that Iga Swiatek’s dominant Roland Garros last year — only 28 games lost in seven matches — has introduced a complication for 2021.

It’s not going to be that easy.

We see this often in tennis: A player wins the first set with no resistance whatsoever. In the second set, the opponent finally digs in and not only plays well, but with determination and resolve. The match dramatically shifts, and the opponent wins the second set. By the time the third set is seven or eight games in, the player who lost the first set is in a competitive groove, while the player who won the first set is still struggling to meet the challenge of competition. The player who lost the first set takes the match, having turned the match around.

Mike Tyson famously said that everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth. When everything is going smoothly, it’s easy to hit the ball, make the right choices, and produce winning points. However, when the opponent plays with quality and toughness together, what is the response?

Iga Swiatek is going to get punched in the mouth at this upcoming French Open… or at least, I would bet the ranch on it. At least one match will involve real adversity, and a flow of events which put Swiatek in a position of extreme pressure.

She never had to handle an especially tense moment at Roland Garros last October, so we never got to see Swiatek walk over the hot coals of doubt, frustration, or anxiety.

That’s why Monday’s Madrid Open match against Ash Barty was so striking and — potentially — beneficial for the teenager who will turn 20 at the very end of May.

Swiatek roared to a 3-0 lead, and it was easy to think, “Here we go again: Swiatek swatting away another elite player on clay. What a force of nature!”

Barty, though, is clearly the best problem-solver in women’s tennis — not the most gifted player (that’s Naomi Osaka), but the player who readily has answers when a match isn’t going her way.

Barty adjusted after her slow start, positioned herself well on the court, played with margin, and fought back.

Swiatek got punched in the mouth… and her game plan fell apart.

Three double faults at 5-5 in the first set enabled Barty to break. Swiatek watched errors fly off her racquet in the high-altitude Madrid conditions. The match — like each tennis ball — flew away from her.

The Madrid conditions played a role in the 7-5, 6-4 loss, but this was mostly a case of Swiatek not being able to take a punch on clay… because that hasn’t happened very often in recent months. It didn’t happen at all last October in Paris.

Swiatek, when her serve and game were breaking down late in the first set, needed to calm herself down, take something off her first serves to get them in, and feel the ball in rallies to regain rhythm. Yet, she did none of those things, continuing to go for broke and misfiring with a low-margin approach which stood in contrast to Barty’s less sexy but profoundly more patient percentage tennis.

Swiatek is spectacular to watch when she is locked in, but Barty’s problem-solving capacities won this match. Swiatek didn’t have an answer when her own problems mounted.

It’s a great lesson for Iga to learn — not only for this year’s Roland Garros, but for the rest of her career.

Given how talented and self-aware Swiatek is, expect her to eventually figure it out… but maybe not right away. Monday showed that for all her brilliance on clay, and despite her intent to relax and have fun against Barty, Swiatek was a bundle of nerves who felt the burden of a big-stage moment.

This is not a setback. It’s a natural and necessary part of a young athlete’s evolution. It will be exciting to see how Iga Swiatek responds to this grow-up moment, in which a poised veteran showed her how to handle negative in-match trends.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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