Iga Swiatek: Understanding mental health helped power French Open triumph

Swiatek spoke exclusively to Metro.co.uk (Picture: Getty)

For Iga Swiatek, the reigning French Open champion from Poland, her journey towards understanding the importance of her mental health began from a point of simplicity.

Growing up watching a golden era of tennis dominated by some of the all-time greats of the game, she realised there was more to the sport than mere forehands and backhands.

‘I think Novak [Djokovic, the world No. 1 from Serbia] said that everybody can play good tennis and be well prepared and physically be great but true champions are going to have great mentalities,’ Swiatek, 19, tells Metro.co.uk in a Zoom call from Madrid. ‘Since I was younger, I wanted to work on that.

‘In the beginning it was about some easy stuff, I thought I can’t really concentrate for the whole match so I wanted to see if there were people who could help me.

‘My reactions were really intense after I lost a point so I thought I should work on that, but now it’s developed and it’s kind of more complicated.’

As one would seek a coach to improve a groundstroke or a serve or a fitness trainer to improve physicality, Swiatek sought external help to train her brain.

After a series of trials with sport psychologists, Swiatek settled on compatriot Daria Abramowicz.

Abramowicz, who has a master’s degree in sports psychology and a background in sailing, was quickly integrated into Team Swiatek and has travelled with her for the past two years.

When training, they seek to measure and manage stress levels by monitoring the activity of her heart and brain. Off court, hours are spent ignoring tennis and instead targeting deeper understanding of her wellbeing in order to grow on a personal level.

‘She works with me on aspects of my private life because it has an influence on my tennis as well and, yeah, she’s just helping me to be a better person and be happy,’ Swiatek explains.

‘Being on court is really intense and there’s a lot of pressure and expectations. It’s sometimes hard to see from a perspective and see it as just a great way of living, because it’s kind of a routine right now.

‘I think it’s different for every player. Some of us can be in their work bubble and not focus on different stuff and just play, but I’m pretty emotional and for me it has a huge influence.

‘It has been much easier when I’ve worked on stuff in my private life and right now I can just focus on playing and not worry about stuff.’

From afar, the sun-chasing lifestyle of a tennis player may appear a breeze but there is the unseen monotony of endless hours spent in hotel rooms – particularly in Covid times – and airport lounges, while – a lucky few aside – virtually every week of your professional life ends in defeat.

In a highly-competitive world, opening up about emotions has typically been discouraged for fear it is a sign of weakness but Swiatek wants that to change.

‘We are all on tour and I assume it’s hard for most of the players to be here because we’re actually travelling with, I don’t know, two or three people for the whole year and everyone is going to get tired of that, we’re not machines,’ says Swiatek.

‘I think a lot of us were raised not to show the emotions and to kind of create that image that we’re unstoppable and that we’re the stronger ones.

‘It’s normal to have problems and have issues. Many players have doubts if they should work with psychologists, it’s still not usual sometimes.

‘I want to talk about it because I think it’s just – it doesn’t matter if you want to develop faster, it doesn’t mean you have huge problems that you want to work on yourself and use other people’s help as you are doing tennis-wise or physical-wise.’

The results have been there for all to see. A rank outsider at Roland Garros last year, as a 19-year-old ranked No. 54 in the world, Swiatek blasted her way to a first Grand Slam title.

Iga Swiatek fact file

Age: 19
Nationality: Polish
Grand Slam titles: 1 (French Open, 2020)
WTA titles: 2
Ranking: 15

The calm ruthlessness to her game was striking during a two-week stint in Paris, in which she didn’t drop a set. Six of the 14 sets she played ended 6-1.

A 17-match win streak for world No. 2 Simona Halep – the 2018 champion and pre-tournament favourite – was snapped for the loss of three games. 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova was beaten by the same scoreline. Even her final opponent and then reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin only picked up five games.

Remarkably, her only other clay-court match of the heavily-disrupted year – at the Italian Open – ended in a straight sets defeat to then world No. 71 Arantxa Rus.

‘I was surprised I could keep that [calmness on court] for the whole two weeks,’ she says. ‘Before the French Open I had a pretty tough time on court.

‘I was practising really well and playing good tennis but when I was playing a match I couldn’t actually use that. I knew I was playing good tennis in practice so I wanted to show that in matches even more, which is why tournaments in New York and Rome weren’t perfect.

‘It was really hard for me and I felt I’m doing everything well and I’m still not playing well, what more should I do? But actually it was a matter of loosening up and not caring.

‘Sometimes it’s good not to care. Before French Open I did that, actually. I just played and didn’t care and it was much, much better. It was pretty hard for me before, but this was the reason I could keep that for the rest of the tournament.

Swiatek stormed to a first Grand Slam title (Picture: Getty)

‘It changed after because my level of expectations went higher again but that’s something I have to work on.’

At the end of this month, Swiatek will begin the defence of her French Open title in the same week she turns 20.

Based on last year’s experience, it’s as simple as loosening up, right?

‘I wish,’ she smiles. ‘But it’s hard.

‘So, I’m going to try to do that but I don’t know what the result is going to be.’

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Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here

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