Iga Swiatek exclusive interview: Meet the teenage star with horizons far beyond the world of tennis

Iga Swiatek of Poland posing with her trophy in the locker room - SHUTTERSTOCK
Iga Swiatek of Poland posing with her trophy in the locker room - SHUTTERSTOCK

“She has broad horizons,” says Iga Swiatek, the uncannily mature 19-year-old who won the recent French Open. “Is that the right phrase? I’m sorry, I haven’t spoken English for a while.”

It is absolutely the right phrase, I reply. And even though she is using it to describe one of her best friends – a talented percussionist who is training for an orchestral career – “broad horizons” would be a good description of Swiatek’s own character.

Unusually for such a young tennis champion, she has such a variety of interests that – until only a few weeks ago – she had been weighing up the merits of four different university degrees: maths, music, psychotherapy and physiotherapy.

Now, after the win at Roland Garros catapulted her world ranking from No 54 to No 17, Swiatek has finally accepted that tennis is her vocation. But that has not quenched her thirst to know more about the world. Last week, while serving out a mini Covid-19 quarantine, she started reading up on European politics.

“I decided to stay home for a few days,” said Swiatek earlier this week. “I met someone [in fact, the Polish president Andrzej Duda] who tested positive for Covid-19, but it was only for 15 seconds and he was wearing a mask and gloves.

“Anyway, I thought I would use the time to learn something new about politics and social issues. I spend so many hours on court, and right now when I don’t have school, I am just trying to find out more about what’s going on in Europe. When I am abroad, it’s hard to be on top of what is happening in Poland.”

While Swiatek finds out more about Poland, Poland has gone gaga for Iga. She is the first Pole of either gender to win a slam, which is why President Duda called her into Warsaw’s Presidential Palace a week ago to award the Golden Cross of Merit.

“The country went completely crazy,” says Wojtek Fibak, whose status as a top-10 player in the 1970s makes him one of only two previous significant tennis stars (the other being 2012 Wimbledon finalist Aga Radwanska) to have emerged from Poland since World War II. “During the second week of Roland Garros, I probably gave 100 interviews to all the radios and TV and internet platforms. There were TV crews standing in front of my house.”

“It’s such a big deal for a Polish player to finally win a slam,” adds Fibak, an aesthete and bon viveur who now runs an art gallery in Warsaw. “I don’t think Iga will quite overtake [Bayern Munich striker] Robert Lewandowski in terms of sponsors, but she will be a major star – our second-biggest sporting ambassador. And she is an interesting character too: someone with an intellectual side, someone who reads books, which isn’t that common in tennis. It goes to show that you need character in this sport.”

Instant fame can be disconcerting. Like her friend Naomi Osaka, Swiatek acknowledges that she is an introvert. “It is hard for me to trust people,” she says. But she adds that, since returning to her Warsaw suburb of Raszyn, she has mostly managed to stay out of the public eye. Even her journey home from Paris was low-key: a private plane landing at an empty airport at midnight.

The only head-swelling moment was that meeting with President Duda. Otherwise, the ever-present threat of Covid-19 has helped to keep things calm. Just as it limited the crowd to only a smattering of fans when Swiatek beat Sofia Kenin in straight sets to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Amazingly, she lost only 23 games in the entire tournament.

“People in Poland are aware I need time for myself,” says Swiatek. “They know I can’t be in the spotlight all the time. I think I am doing a good job adjusting. Daria [Abramowicz, her sports psychologist] was kind of proud.

“Fortunately, I have a group of friends I trust. I’ve known them since I was 14 and going to middle-school, back before I was famous. They are also 19 now, making important decisions about their future. We did talk about what happened in Paris – it was probably the first time they were interested in tennis! – but we also talked about what they are doing. One is a musician [as mentioned above] and another is going to university to study physiotherapy.”

Swiatek (right) celebrates with runner-up Leonie Kung of Switzerland - Swiatek (right) celebrates with runner-up Leonie Kung of Switzerland - AP
Swiatek (right) celebrates with runner-up Leonie Kung of Switzerland - Swiatek (right) celebrates with runner-up Leonie Kung of Switzerland - AP

Is this really a 19-year-old speaking? It can be hard to credit. Perhaps the sporting experience of Tomasz Swiatek – a former Olympic rower whom Fibak describes as “very stern” – has helped his daughter stay so balanced. Whatever the explanation, Iga displays a level of engagement and curiosity that is rarely found in the locker room, with honourable exceptions such as Osaka and the even more precocious Coco Gauff.

Swiatek’s empathetic character was highlighted in August, when she appeared on the popular Polish interview show My First Time. Asked whose shoes she would like to walk in for a day, she didn’t offer the name of another celebrity, like everyone else. Instead she replied “Someone with many problems, to learn something [and] look at the world from a different perspective”.

That is Swiatek in a sentence. The quiet girl at school who observes everything around her with a watchful eye. The same is true of her choice of tennis idol: Rafael Nadal. As a youngster with so many interests, she barely followed the professional game until her teens. But then she settled on Nadal as her role model – history’s greatest exponent of clay-court tennis – and imitated him as closely as possible. She could hardly have paid better tribute than by winning Roland Garros at her second attempt.

“Like the Spaniards, Iga has grown up on clay courts,” says Nick Brown, the experienced British coach who has acted as a mentor since he guided Swiatek’s successful junior Wimbledon campaign in 2018. “She plays with a lot of topspin, and has a dominating forehand – it’s quite unorthodox, but with so much pop in the wrist action. She was blessed with her father’s broad shoulders too and that combination of technique and power can be irresistible, a little like a young Lindsay Davenport.”

Neither has Swiatek’s ambition been sated by her first taste of success. At her victorious press conference in Paris, she identified the Big Three of the men’s game as the players she would like to emulate. “What women’s tennis is struggling with [is that] we are not as consistent as Rafa, Roger and Novak,” Swiatek said. “My goal is to do that.”

Fibak agrees that she is good enough to create her own dynasty, particularly at Roland Garros. “Last year I watched Iga play Simona Halep in the fourth round of the French Open,” he said. “She lost 6-1, 6-0, but even then I could see there was something special about her. The way she moved. The way she went for the lines. Her heavy topspin, which you normally see more in the men’s game.

“This year, they played again in the fourth round. And this time, Iga won 6-1, 6-2. Everything that just missed the line last year, was on the line this year. More and more, I am thinking that Halep is going to be the Salieri of clay-court tennis. And Iga is going to be Mozart.”