Iga Swiatek takes her place at top of tennis world after dominant season | Iga Swiatek

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As Iga Swiatek departed the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sunday night, waving farewell to the fans that chanted her name until the finish, she allowed herself a brief smile. It was not the way Swiatek has concluded many tournaments of this glittering season, meekly relinquishing the third set 6-1 to Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final of the WTA Finals, but the mental fatigue had long set in. What she had already achieved this year was enough.

The numbers alone reflect the significance of Swiatek’s achievements this year, one of the greatest seasons of the 21st century. The Pole won two grand slam titles, including her first on hard courts at the US Open. She has been No 1 for eight months and counting, her points total of 11,085 more than double that of the No 2, Ons Jabeur, who holds 5,055 points.

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Between February and June, Swiatek consolidated a 37-match winning streak that included six titles in a row. She won eight titles overall, losing just one final. After falling to the then No 1, Ashleigh Barty, in Adelaide in January, she embarked on a 15-match winning streak against Top 10 players and finished the season having inflicted 22 6-0 “bagel” sets on her opponents.

One of the most memorable aspects of this breakthrough was just how it came to be. A year ago, at this same event in Guadalajara, Swiatek was in tears on the court as she fell 2-0 down in the group stages. She started the new season ranked ninth, still not even fully comfortable on hard courts. Just as her form turned and an excellent start catapulted her to No 2, still far below Barty, the ground suddenly shifted beneath her. Barty announced her retirement.

Swiatek found out about Barty’s retirement when her team knocked on her door late at night from her hotel room in Miami. For some, the pressure and impostor syndrome from such a premature ascension could have been damaging enough to affect the trajectory of their career.

For Swiatek, it was an opportunity. She won her next contest to seal the No 1 ranking and then ran away with it, methodically establishing her winning streak. She smothered opponents with a set of weapons that are as vicious as those of any other player on tour, her thunderous, heavy forehand complemented by an extremely potent, varied and reliable backhand. Swiatek did not lose a match for four months.

Iga Swiatek with Ons Jabeur after beating the world No 2 in the US Open final.
Iga Swiatek with Ons Jabeur after beating the world No 2 in the US Open final. Swiatek has more than double the ranking points of her nearest rival. Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Her offensive abilities have never been in doubt, nor her athleticism, but she has aided those attributes by becoming one of the best defensive players in the world, learning how to narrow the court and retrieve as many balls as possible at full sprint and stretch, constantly flipping defence from attack.

She now understands the many options at her disposal and how to use them depending on the situation. Swiatek won her second French Open title in June by demolishing the field, conceding just one set, but at the US Open in September she often did not play her best. She simply navigated the important moments extremely well. Down 2-4 in the third set of her semi-final against Sabalenka, she did not make another unforced error.

As her tennis career has flourished, it has also been intriguing to see a 21-year-old come to understand her power outside the court. Plenty of other former No 1s have often only ever seen themselves solely as a tennis player. Swiatek understands that being the best women’s tennis player in the world, the face of the most prominent women’s sport, is quite a political role. Throughout this year, she has used her position to spotlight aid efforts for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.

After a year in which no other player came close to keeping up with her, Swiatek’s success should be a wake up call to the rest of the field.

She is still only 21, still far from a finished product. She can significantly improve her serve, become more comfortable in the forecourt and learn how to navigate grass courts, among many other things. There are players talented enough to battle with her and form full rivalries, but many are not even close to top form; Naomi Osaka is ranked 42nd and Bianca Andreescu is 45th. Should nobody step up, Swiatek has positioned herself to continue her dominance.

As Swiatek’s season came to an end, the 29-year-old Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia rose to win the biggest title of her career in Texas, defeating Sabalenka in the final. Garcia’s story is fascinating in itself. She was promising from a young age, but despite all of her athletic and ball-striking talents, so often her head got in the way. When she was younger, she would request to play on Court Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros, so scared was she of the big stages.

Garcia started this season ranked 74th but in the second half of this year she has been a revelation. She turned a corner by morphing into the most attacking player she could possibly be, standing halfway up to the service line when returning serve, crushing the ball and moving forward at all costs. By winning in Texas, Garcia has risen back to her career high of No 4.

It remains to be seen if the style Garcia has adopted is sustainable and varied enough to constantly mark deep runs over an even longer period, and consistently trouble the world No 1. But finally, over a decade after she emerged, she is exactly where she should be.

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