When Iga Swiatek opens Center Court on the second day of Wimbledon, she will do so as the World No 1 and most dominant player on the tour, but also as a hesitant tournament favourite. A victory for the 21-year-old from Poland over the qualifier Jana Fett will be seen as a formality, but it would also be record-breaking. It would extend Swiatek’s winning streak to 36 matches, beating the previous best run set by Venus Williams 22 years ago. If the win is secured in style, it would also enhance Swiatek’s case de ella as the favorite for the women’s title this fortnight.
In some ways, though, she is already there, her newfound status reflected by her role as curtain-raiser on day two of the Championships. The sudden retirement of last year’s winner Ash Barty left a decision for the All England Club as to who would open the second day of play on Center Court. Simona Halep was a popular option, as the 2019 champion was denied the privilege due to the pandemic the following year. Another former champion such as Serena Williams or even Emma Raducanu could have been contenders.
For all the merits of opting for Halep – and one of the reasons the All England Club went for the Polish player is that the former World No 1 withdrew injured from her match in Stuttgart late last week – the decision to go for Swiatek also just makes sense. Not that she expected it.
“Oh no, we didn’t really request that,” she said, surprised at the question. “I feel really privileged that I’ve been chosen. I wasn’t expecting it because I only made it to the fourth round last year and that’s my best result. Hopefully, it’s going to be a good show, ”she said with her trademark smile de ella, which manages to be humble yet slightly awkward, and remains so refreshingly human.
This is Iga Swiatek, the best player in the world who was also too shy to say hello to Serena Williams when they crossed paths on Center Court on the weekend before the Championships. “I wanted to meet her, I was pretty overwhelmed,” Swiatek said, and as she explained the encounter it sounded like the new girl at school terrified of embarrassing herself in front of the most popular kid in the class. “I came back to myself from a few years earlier when I was too shy to say hi to anybody,” she said, smiling again.
For the record, Swiatek has already won nine titles on the WTA Tour, as well as two French Opens. Her stretch of her dominance over the past four months can only be compared to a few select others in the game, including Serena Williams.
There is nothing to be shy about but Swiatek is different, and is adored because of it. She has attracted a legion of fans not just for her dominant, powerful and overwhelmingly accurate game, but also for her personality, and meme-inspiring reactions from her. “Four minutes of Iga Swiatek being a meme and “Out of context Iga Swiatek” are just two of the pieces of online content that sum up why she has become such a favourite, and it will only be a matter of time before Wimbledon realizes it too.
If the Center Court crowd have done their research, they will also know a player has walked out into their presence who is unlike many others in the sport. Swiatek devours books during grand slams – To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye were both on her list ahead of Wimbledon – and the employment of a full-time psychologist on her team is also a calculated move that sets her apart from the rest. For Swiatek, mental preparation is as important as physical training before and during a tournament, and it has played a key role in her ascension to the top.
It was apparent ahead of Wimbledon, as Swiatek discussed the pressures of arriving in SW19 as the World No 1, tournament favorite and on the back of an undefeated run that stretches back to February. For Swiatek, she is taking the approach that there is no pressure. She has not played a tournament since winning the French Open, let alone on grass, and she has come to terms with the reality that the longer her winning run goes on, the harder it is to continue it.
Grass is still a strange surface for her, despite the fact that she was the junior champion at Wimbledon four years ago. Swiatek recently stumbled upon footage of her 2018 title from Ella and said it was like watching “slow-motion” tennis. The level required in the main draw was underlined by a first-round defeat in 2019, followed by a fourth-round exit last year at the hands of Ons Jabeur, who is now the World No 2.
“Honestly, I still feel like I need to figure out grass,” Swiatek said. The 21-year-old has already accepted that it is not possible to play perfect tennis in every match and in every tournament. “I have had so much success this season that I don’t have to show everybody that I need to play well in every tournament,” she said. “Because it’s tennis, we have ups and downs.”
That hesitancy, while genuine, is tempered by the fact that Swiatek is beginning to feel at ease with her status. Victory at Roland Garros while being the favorite tournament was significant. After winning her de ella first French Open title in 2020 from nowhere and as an unknown 18-year-old, Swiatek at times struggled with what she faces now, the pressure and expectation of being a grand slam champion.
“I always need to kind of confirm in my head that I’m in the right place and that I deserve to be here,” Swiatek said, and her dominant victory on the Paris clay proved that beyond doubt. Wimbledon and grass present a different challenge, but what is not in question is Swiatek’s place of her on Center Court this afternoon.