Iga Świątek: I am not invincible

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- I felt fear that overwhelmed me. I have come to terms with Aryna Sabalenka being number one for now. Then, I allowed myself a greater right to make mistakes - says Iga Świątek in an interview with WP SportoweFakty.

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The player from Raszyn won the WTA Finals in Cancun in grand style, returning to the top spot in the world rankings. "After the last ball of the final, the emotions were released," says the 22-year-old.

The Polish player and other top athletes are trying to bring about changes in the intense WTA calendar. "Discussing certain issues with the organization, we are hitting a wall... And it's our health that we are sacrificing."

In the pages of WP SportoweFakty, Świątek also responds to the criticism that fell on her after withdrawing from the Billie Jean King Cup. "I always want to play for Poland. This time, it was impossible," she notes and comments on the loud words of Agnieszka Radwańska about her.

The three-time Roland Garros winner is intensely engaged in promoting mental health. "I used to be ashamed of my feelings on the court. [...] I believe we shouldn't be like rocks today. If I pretended to be indestructible, I would deny reality," she shares.

Dariusz Faron, WP SportoweFakty: In the 59th minute of the match with Jessica Pegula, the scoreboard reads 6:1, 5:0. What does it feel like to play a ball to win the WTA Finals?

Iga Świątek, WTA Finals and Roland Garros champion, world ranking leader: Full concentration. In my mind, I kept repeating that I had to finish the job. When I have control over the match, I try not to let it go. Emotions are only released after the last ball. Then, I felt pride and joy. Reactions to victories vary - sometimes, instead of joy, there is relief that I met the fans' expectations. In Cancun, I was one of the players who best adapted to the harsh conditions. Mentally, we all had to rise to the occasion.

Problems with the court, empty stands, strong wind, rain - was this one of the worst-organized tournaments you have participated in as a professional tennis player?

I don't want to use such words. The situation was very complicated; the finals were organized at the last minute another year. The issues related to the weather still need to be thoroughly thought out - that region is at the end of the hurricane season. Without a doubt, the tournament should not have been played outside. We should have had the chance to showcase our best tennis. To show what we worked on in training instead of fighting windmills. To think about tactics or technique, not about just hitting the court.

Competing in such conditions showed what a given player is capable of, which is why the victory tastes so good. However, we should not be put in a situation where half of the internet mocks us. The WTA should draw conclusions from this, because its decisions were not favorable for us. My feelings and opinions regarding the tournament's conditions and organization coincide with the other players' positions.

Aryna Sabalenka stated in Cancun that the WTA did not show her respect. Do you feel the same?

Discussing specific issues with the WTA, we hit a wall, we encounter resistance. We are determined to bring about modifications to the calendar and to ease the rules. It's about all the restrictions and consequences that a player faces when withdrawing from competitions, whether due to injury or just wanting to take a break. We can work out a compromise with the WTA in many areas, as it is our health that we are sacrificing.

Many will now think that sport involves effort and we earn a lot of money. However, we can compete without risking our health to such an extent. The world is moving faster and faster. As athletes, we need to find a better balance. And people watch us, often getting inspired by athletes. We can set a positive example. Show that we can go slower, more intelligent, less, and still be effective and benefit the sport.

We ourselves need to fight to slow down the pace, no one will do it for us. Many decisions have already been made, and - as I said - we hit a wall. I am counting on being more included in the decision-making process in the future.

You played 79 singles matches this season, the most in the field. After the last match, was your body crying out for rescue?

Yes. I am very well prepared physically. If anyone is to bear such burdens, it is me. Nevertheless, I feel them, just like other tennis players.

I'm talking about physical and mental exhaustion because they are interconnected. I was rarely at home and felt a strong need for it halfway through the season. I wanted to spend some time in the place where I grew up - among close ones, in my haven. After the US Open, I returned to Poland, and it helped me win in Beijing and Cancun. Unfortunately, I decided to withdraw from the Billie Jean King Cup due to the strain.

Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images
Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images

Did you expect your absence to cause a stir in the community?

I initially planned to participate because I have always wanted to play for Poland. However, this season, it was just not feasible. I was aware that my decision would only please a few. However, those knowledgeable in tennis understand what it means to travel far after a tournament, the need for adaptation, lack of sleep, and short training time on a new court.

The WTA Finals final was moved to Monday. Playing a match on a different continent in the same week could end with an injury. I trust myself and my team. With my absence in Seville, the whole team and I lost out. However, the long-term perspective is more important - to have balance and perform on the court for many years, as well as for Poland. I want to represent it at every tournament. I believe that every week, by playing on the tour, I also express our country.

Agnieszka Radwańska's comment resonated loudly. In the Wirtualna Polska studio, she emphasized that the decision was mine. She also added that I wouldn't have to play in all the Billie Jean King Cup matches, and my presence alone would have helped the team. How do you respond?

I took the statement calmly. Some words can be carried out of context; I have experienced it myself a few times. Agnieszka knows how the tour works and what the burdens are; she understands that perspective. She knows that sometimes you have to make a more selfish decision that will help avoid problems affecting everyone later.

Agnieszka expressed her opinion in such a context that she has made many sacrifices for the team. Such an attitude must undoubtedly be appreciated. However, I get the impression that not everything was analyzed so carefully in the past, and some things were more accessible to plan. For example, there should have been a discussion that the next tournament would be played on a different continent.

You are known as someone who strives for complete control over events. Please give an example of a situation where you let emotions get the better of you on the court.

The most demanding moments this season were the tournament in Rome and the time before competing in Tokyo and Beijing. I am an emotional person. Sometimes I feel fear.

What were you afraid of?

Mid-year, I was carrying the burden associated with - I don't like this term and try to avoid it - maintaining the ranking. Aryna Sabalenka had many chances to overtake me, and eventually, she did. That's when I felt free. It was easier for me to concentrate exclusively on my own game again.

In Warsaw, I had a great training block. I returned to basics and started playing the way I love most. After a two-week break, I thought: "OK, I've trained, I've done great work, so now I have to show everyone that I've reset. It should be easier." I went onto the court in Tokyo under demanding conditions, and - just then - fear appeared. I felt like everyone was watching me. It overwhelmed me. I gathered the whole team. I told them that I needed one hundred percent support, including emotional support. I asked them not to judge me because I probably wouldn't play well and might have to fight hard in every match instead of playing freely.

I received that support, which made me feel more confident with each match. At the end of the season, you are so tired and worn out by constantly subordinating yourself to tennis that it is difficult to control your feelings. I thought I would be fighting mainly with myself until the end of the year, but then I won the tournament in Beijing.

For some players, moments of crisis last half a year, and for others, they drag on for years. After two weeks, I got out of that state, which was incredibly positive for me. The work done with Daria Abramowicz helped a lot. Of course, working with a psychic can sometimes be rocky but rosy. There are highs and lows, and you can't predict everything. It is essential to have the courage to talk about feelings. And not to be afraid to ask for help.

What was the key to overcoming the difficult moment?

I gave myself a margin for error. I thought that for a few months, I might feel worse. I told myself that nothing wrong would happen even if I made a mistake. Sometimes, you have to accept that it might be difficult. I showed myself that by opening up a bit, the crisis passed. That's why after the WTA Finals, I wrote: "The best things come when you least expect them."

Life is unpredictable. I stopped thinking I would win something by the end of the season. I also accepted that I would not be number one at the end of the year. With the results at all the Grand Slams, Aryna deserved to be the leader. So, I focused on enjoying the game.

Photo by Harold Alcocer/Jam Media/Getty Images
Photo by Harold Alcocer/Jam Media/Getty Images

You changed your approach. You once said that in 2021, after winning your first Grand Slam the year before, "the pressure was exhausting." How did it manifest?

I won during the pandemic. Absolutely no one expected it. I didn't think I was playing well enough to win. Of course, it was a dream come true. But then there was a collision with reality.

After Roland Garros, for two months, my main goal was no longer training and continuous development. I wanted to make the most of the success. I started thinking about business and money. It overwhelmed me. In mental work, Daria Abramowicz and I had to interrupt the process that we began in 2019 to manage the current situation. It was a moment to focus again on what's most important - development and deriving joy from tennis. I began 2022 as a more stable player who knows what she wants.

In the media, you talked about feeling ashamed of the negative emotions shown on the court. Where did this shame come from?

Journalists often ask me about the WTA Finals 2021 in Guadalajara [Iga Świątek cried during a match with Maria Sakkari - editor's note]. It's not beneficial when emotions prevent you from continuing the game or presenting your best tennis. We all work to be better than the tennis player on the other side of the net, but crises still come, as they do in life. Sometimes, people don't understand an athlete has the right to emotions. It's much harder for athletes to be forgiven. That's why I felt ashamed after Guadalajara. Today, I believe that we shouldn't be like rocks. If I pretended to be indestructible, I would be lying about reality. I prefer to show the true face.

Women are judged more harshly as if we do not control emotions at all. During the ATP Finals, we saw that men reacted differently on the court; sometimes, they were aggressive and sometimes cried. This is accepted and interpreted as passion leading to success in men's tennis. Meanwhile, I read again this season that sometimes I lose control over emotions. That "Świątek is finished," that "it's over for her career." I cannot understand such opinions. Some people are very guided by gender stereotypes.

You strongly support organizations working on mental health issues. Is mental health still a taboo topic in competitive sports?

Less and less so. Talking about mental health, I try to convince myself that asking for help is not wrong. In Poland, some still perceive it as a weakness. In professional tennis, awareness is growing, thanks to the stories of a few players who recently won Grand Slams and then had to take a break due to pressure and a more difficult moment.

You said in an article for The Players Tribune that when you learned about the end of Ashleigh Barty's career in March 2022, you cried for a long time.

I didn't fully understand what happened. Ash was the undisputed leader; she played the best tennis - even if I knew where she would hit, it was still hard to deal with her play. At first, her departure was an abstraction for me. It was a significant loss for the sport. I have great respect for her.

Furthermore, I realized what the end of her career meant for me. I had been number two for only a few days, and suddenly, there was a chance to rise to the top of the rankings. I experienced it deeply because I never imagined such a scenario could be possible. Nowadays, we live from day to day, not constantly thinking about the future. Then the thought comes: "God, I could soon be the best in my discipline in the world."

Barty left the court at 25, explaining that she had, in a way, burned out. Can you imagine a similar scenario for yourself?

No one knows what the future holds. We can't control everything. Ash achieved so much that she had every right to decide. I'm not sure I would have the courage to make a similar decision. I guess I would continue to play and try further.

On the other hand, each year can be more demanding. We have many obligations off the court; we are constantly being watched and judged. No one said you must play until you're 35 when you can barely walk because you've worn out your body. I don't want to lead myself to such wear and tear. That's why sometimes I have to make tough decisions - like opting out of a performance - that others will judge.

Let's stay with emotions. Is it difficult for an introvert to function among flashes and to enter the world of people from the front pages?

When I was a child watching tennis at the highest level, I considered it an unattainable world. Today, I'm part of it. And I know that the best athletes are just people.

But before your first meeting with Rafael Nadal, you reportedly were so stressed that you wrote down topics of conversation to avoid an awkward silence.

I can't remember what was on that note. But it wasn't an exceptional situation! As a teenager, I did that more often. I recommend it to all introverts! If I didn't know someone, I didn't know what we could talk about. Now, I am opening up more and more.

I wouldn't want anyone to see me now as someone from a different world. And to think that I don't have problems, that everything is perfect with me. Each of us on tour has our bubble. We let in the most important people. And its interior looks different than what one might read in the media.

Asked by Tomasz Smokowski about three most important numbers in your phone, you mentioned Daria Abramowicz after your father and sister. Recently, in the "Rzeczpospolita" newspaper, the psychologist said you spend a lot of time together but have set clear boundaries. How would you describe your relationship?

Our cooperation is not only about emotional control on the court or carrying out mental training but also about everyday life. Whatever happens in the life of an athlete always affects their performance. You cannot separate sport from life. Sometimes, people can lose themselves, for example, in social media. Daria observes how I function and the patterns I sometimes fall into and analyzes how expectations and comments from others affect me. She guides me in developing actions that will work for me.

Over the last few years, some of my collaborators have changed. Daria has become a link between the management and sports teams, so I didn't have to oversee everything myself. If it was not for here, I wouldn't be able to build such a cohesive team. I needed someone who could advise me, sometimes show me different sides of a situation, and support me in creating a critical structure. Daria is a very experienced person, not only in psychology. I was able to benefit from her support and focus exclusively on my sports development. I could also take advantage of her expertise in communication and team building, which have proven themselves in the changes in my managerial environment, and build a Polish-global team supporting my business career.

Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images
Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images

From your perspective, is your relationship with Daria Abramowicz purely professional?

Communication is different than with a therapist, whom you might see once every two weeks. I know Daria well, but as a professional, she would not allow it to influence our work. We set session times and work through specific things. It doesn't mean that we cannot eat lunch together or watch something. Sometimes, elements of work pop up between sessions. I'm on tour almost the whole year, so with each of my collaborators, I spend time not only on the court or at the gym. My team is a massive source of support.

Former tennis player Lech Sidor and former president of Legia Warsaw Bogusław Leśnodorski openly suggested in the past that they think Daria Abramowicz's role in the team is too significant. Have such opinions reached you?

Yes. These people know nothing about me or my life. They don't know how I function or what I struggle with. Our conversations never went beyond "Good morning." Honestly, sometimes I don't see the purpose of such opinions, apart from giving sensational headlines in the media and publicity to those who express them.

Is the mentally present Iga Świątek and the teenager who entered the big tennis world two different people?

Privately, I haven't changed. I have the same values and goals. But I have undoubtedly developed a lot in terms of the tools that I can use on and off the court. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be in the place where I am today.

You've just returned from vacation. Are you counting the days to the next season, or would you instead still be sunbathing in the Maldives?

There are a few elements I would like to change. I know what I did wrong in the previous preparatory season. Now, I plan to correct these things. So, I am looking forward to the opportunity that will soon present itself. I am inquisitive about how I will handle the coming year. But I won't lie – I would lie on a lounge chair a bit longer if I could.

Dariusz Faron, WP SportoweFakty

Źródło artykułu: WP SportoweFakty
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