Iga Swiatek won battles of the mind before she won the US Open

Iga Swiatek climbed yet another tennis peak on Saturday, winning her first US Open title and third Grand Slam by beating Ons Jabeur 6-2, 7-6. To the casual viewer, Swiatek’s title run and dominant display in the final would hardly come as a surprise. The 21-year-old is the undisputed World No. 1 – with more than double the ranking points amassed by No. 2 Jabeur. She went on a 37-match winning streak in the summer, and is by far the most dominantly successful player of her generation.

But Swiatek’s buildup to the Open hardly categorised her as the favourite. After the French Open triumph, Swiatek’s form took a dive, losing consecutive third rounds at Wimbledon, Toronto, and Cincinnati. Her run to the final was also one based on grit rather than inspired tennis, she needed big comebacks against Jule Niemeier in the fourth round and Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinal.

Her performance on Sunday seemed to suggest otherwise though. Right from the get-go, Swiatek put the past few weeks in her rear-view mirror and began an onslaught of intense, attacking, and powerful tennis on Jabeur, breaking her thrice to take the first set. Despite being a break down in the second, Jabeur pulled out many stops of her own, producing her best to take the set into a tiebreaker. Swiatek blew a 4-2 lead in that too, handing the initiative to Jabeur to take the match into a decider.

Then, the Pole did what she had done to so many opponents before her, isolating Jabeur’s forehand, taking the game to her by going deep with her return, showing impressive elasticity in defence, and winning three of the final four points to be crowned champion.

This has been a theme in her time at the top of the women’s game. The 21-year-old lost the first final of her career and has won each of her 10 since, without dropping a single set. If there were ever a player to rise to the big occasion, it’s Swiatek. The bigger the occasion, the greater the pressure, and the higher she raises her level.

Clutch play and titles have come to define Swiatek’s performances during this breakthrough year: when she’s good, she’s virtually unplayable. Getting the ball back into play from her ferocious groundstrokes is a task not many are up to, as Jabeur found out in the final. The Pole has credited her psychologist Daria Abramowicz, whom she has been working with since she was 18, for instilling that killer instinct and toughness in her.

“The work we’ve put in with Daria for sure helped,” she said after her comeback win over Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinal. “Right now it’s just easier for me to actually logically think what I can change. And I feel like I have more skills to do that than one type of way to play.”

That Swiatek works with a psychologist itself may be an outlier, but the fact that she travels with one – Abramowicz was in her box throughout the US Open – is virtually unheard of.

Before the tournament began, Swiatek had gone into an irritated rant over the balls used in the US Open women’s event, and how they are lighter than the ones used by the men. Swiatek’s view was endorsed by many other players, but to display that negativity so openly, and then to be in the kind of mindset to win a Grand Slam two weeks later, was indicative of how she can zone in on the big stage.

There is little doubt that the Pole is a generational talent, and at 21, she still has so much more she can develop in her game. But for those that wish to follow in her footsteps, work off the court, as much as work on the court, could be key.

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