Three times a Grand Slam champion, Iga Swiatek became the world’s number one ranked female tennis player with the sudden retirement of Australian Ashleigh Barty last April. Suddenly, the already shy Swiatek, 21, found herself recognized on the street in her native Poland and chased by paparazzi. To say it was a lot to handle is, of course, an understatement, but then again: True champions always seem to find a way. She’s written a moving and intensely personal essay for The Players’ Tribune about growing up, rising through the ranks, coming out on top, and finding the mental strength to stay sane while staying there. We asked her about that; about Netflix’s new inside-the-tour documentary series, Break Point, which premieres today; and about Naomi Osaka’s recent big news.
Vogue**: You just published a really personal essay in which you open up about, among other things, being an introvert, particularly when you were a bit younger in Poland. I think a lot of people would describe themselves as introverts, but you had, or have, a pretty extreme version. Could you describe this a bit—how did being a big introvert affect your daily life and your tennis?**
Iga Swiatek: I think because of the work I’ve done, on my own and with my psychologist and just through all of these new life experiences—especially on tour with tennis—my experience as an introvert [now] is a whole different story. On tour, it’s necessary to meet people and make connections, but when I was a teenager, I found it difficult to approach people and really even to just make small talk with strangers—it felt like it was impossible for me to find topics to talk about. It was sometimes annoying, sometimes hard, but I worked through it, so I know it’s possible to open up and grow in that way. I’m constantly learning new ways to feel comfortable in social situations, and tennis is certainly pushing my boundaries on that front—in a good way.
You also write about an extreme kind of perfectionism you held yourself to—when you cleaned the house, say, you didn’t stop until everything was absolutely perfect. It sounds like a struggle—but is this also the same instinct that would have you hit a million kick serves until you got it exactly right? Is there a good side and a bad side to this?
Perfectionism can definitely go both ways, that’s for sure. Pursuing excellence is usually a pretty positive notion, and it’s important to continue pushing to be better at what we do, but on the other hand, extreme perfectionism—in my case, at least—can easily change into frustration if I can’t meet my own high expectations. It’s all about balance, and I’m trying to find it on a daily basis.
The Australian Open kicks off in a couple of days and, with it, the 2023 tennis season. What are your hopes for the tournament and the year, both on and off the court?
I want to leave last season behind me and focus on here and now. Every match, every tournament, and every season is a different story. My main goals haven’t changed, though: I want to focus on a process, to work and find balance between work and life, to enjoy my life on tour and always appreciate the journey. I want to be focused on the next match rather than my last match and just enjoy my tennis.
So much of the pretournament focus or news had been about Naomi Osaka deciding not to play in it—at least until Naomi came out with some big news of her own! She obviously put a focus on mental health in recent years. Was her bringing that to the foreground something that other players on the tour—you, specifically—appreciated or related to? But also has the question of will she or won’t she play in each big tournament become a distraction you’re tired of talking or thinking about?
I wish Naomi nothing but the best, and I hope she will find her way to do exactly what is best for her. It would be great to see her come back to her best shape on the court and to compete against her if that is something she wants. I’d love to meet her on tour again because she was very kind to me when I was a much less experienced player. Of course, now we know her comeback will be on hold for a bit as she just announced she’s pregnant and has other goals and priorities for the near future. So I’m excited for her and sending all my best to her on that major life announcement!
Getting back to your question: Yes, both of us speak openly about mental health. For me, it’s important to normalize working with a psychologist and to focus on normalizing my emotions. Everyone has them. When I cry on the court, I’m learning that I don’t need to explain myself. Crying is as normal as smiling or screaming in joy after a win. I would love to see a world where crying and emotions in sports—and in life—aren’t a sign of weakness; they just are.
Netflix is premiering its new tennis documentary series, Break Point**, today. A lot of players, including you, decided to work with the Netflix crew and let them film certain private moments; a few others didn’t. Why did you decide to cooperate—and what do you hope to get out of the series? Do you think there’s a whole secret world behind the scenes of the tour that it will be good for more people to know about?**
Before I said yes to being in the docuseries, I really thought about it a lot—I mean a lot, like almost five months! [Laughs.] When I agreed to sign on, they had already begun filming with other players. We started to film after my final [at the French Open, which she won] in Roland Garros, so quite late during the season, at the end of the clay season. For me, tennis is my first and most important priority, so my team and I needed to know that filming with Netflix would not interfere with my sports performance. I finally decided to do it because I want to promote tennis and my country, and a series like this is a great platform to do it. I watched Drive to Survive, about Formula 1, from the same producer, and I liked how it turned out, so I decided: Why not? I’m a private person, so it was definitely a balance of deciding what I wanted to show to people. My job is to play tennis, and I wanted to show people how I work. I hope the show will highlight the uniqueness of our discipline and showcase how much hard work it takes—and how much it means to us players. I hope fans grow a new appreciation for the sport.