Iga Swiatek holds off improving rivals to continue path to greatness | tennis

AAs the North American hardcourt swing came into focus this summer, Iga Swiatek’s frustration was palpable. She had already achieved a lot this season, winning her third French Open title and four titles in total. Although she hadn’t reached the heights of her unforgettable 2022 season, her outstanding consistency had led to an impressive 53-8 win-loss record.

However, for some people that wasn’t enough. After recovering from a set down to soundly defeat Zheng Qinwen 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 in Cincinnati, Swiatek began her press conference with a monologue, urging fans to be more positive and less scathing about her efforts to judge. She noticed that people had even sent emails to her team criticizing their posts. Clearly the added scrutiny of being the center of attention in her sport weighed on her.

“Today’s game certainly wasn’t perfect,” Swiatek said with a sigh. “We all saw that. But the amount of hate and criticism that me and my team get after losing a set is just ridiculous.”

Last season the pressure came from all sides. As she faced additional expectations and unwanted opinions, her rivals joined in. Aryna Sabalenka’s excellence immediately put significant pressure on Swiatek’s No. 1 ranking, Elena Rybakina won all three of her encounters and Jessica Pegula would beat her this week for the second time in 2023. Coco Gauff would get her first win over Swiatek shortly after.

Despite numerous adversities, Swiatek remains the leading figure in her sport after an absolutely dominant week at the WTA Finals in Cancún. In addition to her devastating, heavy groundstrokes, her outstanding athleticism and her flawless return game, Swiatek has once again demonstrated an unwavering commitment to her work and a mental toughness that sets her apart from the rest.

It cannot be said often enough: Swiatek is clearly on his way to becoming an absolute star. At 22, she has already won four Grand Slam titles, 17 titles overall and 76 weeks at No. 1. Of the 14 major titles currently available – Grand Slams, WTA Finals and WTA 1000 – she has already won eight different events. The best players tend to win around 80% of their games – no woman since Maria Sharapova has won anywhere near that quickly. Swiatek’s career major draw record? 199-52 (79.3%).

Iga Swiatek plays a shot on her way to victory in the French Open final against Karolina Muchova. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

However, this season was also significant because of the progress made by all of the top players. With Swiatek scoring 9295 points and Sabalenka 9050 points, it is the first time since 2012 that the top two players finished with over 9000 points.

The way Sabalenka improved mentally and physically was the revelation of the season. Sabalenka has learned to harness her immense power, win week after week and achieve the level of consistency required to reach the No. 1 spot.

However, despite her dramatic improvement, she could have achieved even more. Sabalenka blew dramatic leads against Karolina Muchova and Ons Jabeur in the French Open and Wimbledon semifinals before leading Gauff by a set in the US Open final. Although her resilience after each heartbreak was immense, her head still got in the way. These mistakes should be enough motivation for the 25-year-old to pursue Swiatek again in 2024.

Before the first round of Wimbledon was over, Gauff had lost and left the tournament in tears. She wondered if she would actually achieve the lofty goals she set for herself so many years ago. But then the 19-year-old made the right personnel decisions – she hired Brad Gilbert when her father stepped down – and rebounded with the summer of her dreams and the US Open title. As long as their work ethic and smart decisions remain, this is just the beginning.

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In a season marked by stability, Marketa Vondrousova caused one of the biggest shocks in recent years by winning Wimbledon at No. 42. She may still be adjusting to her new height, but the 24-year-old’s toolbox of shots is too extensive for her to not play a role on the clay and at Roland Garros. However, Jabeur knows she should have won the Wimbledon final. The heartache of losing their first three major finals is far from healed. Although Elena Rybakina faded towards the end of the season, the 24-year-old has made it clear that she too can be a consistent force and that her 2022 Wimbledon title is unlikely to be her last major success.

Coco Gauff holds the trophy after her victory at the US Open in September.
Coco Gauff holds the trophy after her victory at the US Open in September. Photo: Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports

Many players stepped up, but the failures were also notable. Naomi Osaka will return in January after giving birth to her daughter Shai and spending some much-needed time away from sport. She remains one of the few players with the ability to disrupt Swiatek, but only when she’s hungry and completely locked in. Emma Raducanu will also return in April after an eight-month break following two hand operations and an ankle operation. Her choice of coach continues to make headlines, but it remains to be seen whether her body can even handle the rigors of professional tennis.

Like Swiatek, these champions have had their own struggles with the immense criticism that has accompanied their success, but they and many others will be back in 2024. As the top players look to retain the spots they’ve worked so hard to earn, clean slates and new opportunities await the rest.

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