Iga won't be drawn on Rafa parallels

Defending women's champion still 'too overwhelmed to say hi' to her idol

Iga Swiatek, Roland Garros 2021, press © Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Speaking with an assuredness of a champion wise beyond her years, eyes intermittently emerging beneath the safety of her cap, Iga Swiatek still breaks into a nervous smile at the mere mention of her idol, Rafael Nadal.

The Pole is embracing all that comes with the build-up to defending her first major – fit, focused, even winning the same lead-up event as the Spaniard in Rome.

Like Nadal, Swiatek announced herself emphatically on the Grand Slam stage at 19, with victory at Roland-Garros.

She could do worse than pick the brain of a 13-time champion in Paris on what it takes to go two from two.

First, though, she’d have to drum up the courage to say “hello”.

“Maybe we're gonna have a chance to [discuss] that later, but we just had like a quick small talk last year, and yesterday he said hi to me. For now I'm too overwhelmed to even say hi,” Swiatek grinned.

“I'm a big fan of his, and if I'm gonna have a chance to ask him some stuff and also learn from him, it would be great, but we are both busy, so I know it's gonna be hard to schedule that.”

Since the teenager blitzed all before her in Paris seven months ago, she had moments of doubt as to whether she would be able to back it up and land another title.

There was relief when a second trophy followed in Adelaide in February against Belinda Bencic, then number three came on clay at the Foro Italico earlier this month against Karolina Pliskova.

It had been four months since her Roland-Garros run before she emerged from quarantine in Australia to face her best friend, Kaja Juvan in the opening round of the Gippsland Trophy.

Incidentally, the pair will square off again in the first round in Paris.

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“It's not easy to play against your best friend. It wasn't nice to see that, because one of us is going to lose,” she said. “For sure that match in February is giving me more confidence. I'm just trying to, as well, find a distance to that.

“We are friends, but on court everybody is equal. I am actually good at forgetting that I'm playing against my best friend and just playing tennis and just hitting the ball.”

Swiatek revealed on Polish television show My First Time last year, the three most important numbers in her phone were: “My dad, my sister and right now, Daria Abramowicz.”

It was the Polish sports psychologist whom Swiatek attributed to unlocking her potential, having first started working together two years ago.

Fortunately for the teenager she had not allowed superstitions to creep into her routines before the pair met.

“I mean, she's against that because there are some situations when you kind of do some stuff that you have done before and suddenly you're going to be all nervous and it's just not necessary,” Swiatek said.

“When you have a chance to avoid that it's better, but I like to keep my routines… I'm a big fan of routines, because I like to listen to the same music before I enter the court, but it's not like if I'm gonna eat different kind of eggs and breakfast everything is gonna be bad.”

The advice from Abramowicz as the young Pole prepared to attempt her Roland-Garros title defence was simple – strip away all the background noise and keep the task at hand simple.

“We are just focusing on treating this tournament the same as any other, because that's the most important thing,” Swiatek said. “The season is long, and I have played many tournaments until that stage, and I'm gonna have many more chances after.

"So I'm just trying to lower my expectations and remember that from the experience of other players it's not easy to be a defending champion, so I'm giving myself time.

“She's encouraging me to do that and explaining that it's a good way to approach stuff, because it may be really, really stressful, but I just want to be the same competitor as any other girl.”

Swiatek was well aware she and her idol had both won their first major at 19, shared a birthday during Roland-Garros and saved match points to win in Rome this month.

The temptation to draw parallels had crossed her thoughts but that little piece of Abramowicz advice was never far from mind.

“I thought about it, but I also think it's kind of weird,” she smiled. “I don't know… it's also some kind of superstition when you look at that stuff and try to compare each other. But yeah, I know it’s weird.”