When Iga Swiatek steps on court for her Indian Wells opener on Friday, the Polish world No.4 will be wearing a yellow and blue ribbon, not just in support of her Ukrainian opponent Anhelina Kalinina, but as a token of solidarity with all the people of Ukraine.
At 20 years of age, Swiatek is aware she still has a lot to learn, but she is eager to use her voice to help the Ukrainian cause to the best of her ability.
The recent Doha champion took to social media earlier this week to speak out against Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. She revealed she has prepared more yellow and blue ribbons for any fellow players who wish to join her in this symbolic gesture and encouraged people to support organisations that are offering aid to Ukraine.
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“For me the most important thing is using my voice,” Swiatek told Eurosport in a phone interview on Thursday.
“I’m only 20, so I’m not an expert and I don’t know how to fight war but for sure I want sport to connect people, and bring a little bit of joy maybe and also for all the players to have kind of a similar voice so we can fight this together.
“We’re kind of popular and we have some influence on the people in our countries, so why not use that?”
Swiatek added that she is working on projects that would help Ukrainian and Polish people “long term” and is keen to find real ways to make a difference.
“I'm pretty proud of Polish people right now, that they're really welcoming Ukrainians who have crossed the border and they’re like really open-minded. And hopefully the things that I'm thinking about are going to work out well and I'm going to have some more influence,” said the 2020 Roland Garros winner.
In her relatively short career, Swiatek has tried to make good use of her platform when it comes to shedding light on various issues.
So it comes as no surprise that she has taken this strong stance against the war, even though not every athlete can be this comfortable speaking up.
“That's true and you have to respect that. The thing is I don’t want to judge people, and if they're not doing that and they're not saying what they honestly think, that's okay because we all have the right to have privacy and not say stuff,” said Swiatek.
“But for me, if you’re asking about the war, I was pretty emotional reading all that stuff and you could see in Doha that me and (Estonian) Anett (Kontaveit in the final)… we're pretty close to Ukraine and we've been raised in a world without a big war in Europe. So at first it was really insane for us to read all the news.
“And I think if we can use our voice to help people and to make them more safe or, I don’t know, we can cause less suffering, then why not?. We are only tennis players obviously, but we also have a way to help people.”
Last year, Swiatek donated portions of her prize money to mental health organisations on World Mental Health Day. She believes in the importance of addressing the mental side of sport, and has a psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, travelling with her to many tournaments throughout the season.
Swiatek takes the time to craft insightful social media posts about the challenges she faces as an athlete on tour, which has helped her connect with fans in a genuine manner, making her more relatable and normalising the idea that showing vulnerability can be a strength, not a weakness.
In one of her on-court interviews during this year’s Australian Open – where she reached the semi-finals – Swiatek joked that she cries a lot and that “a week without crying is not a week”.
She noted on Thursday that her statement was made in jest but acknowledges that she does indeed feel comfortable showing that degree of emotion.
“I am pretty emotional and I don't want to hide it because why would I?” says Swiatek.
“There are many people who are like that, and I think it can help them to see that even the athletes or the people that are making good success or are popular to have the same emotions as them; so I want to be honest with my fans and to show them the real me.”
Swiatek shot to stardom in October 2020 when she blasted through the French Open draw as an unseeded teenager to become Poland’s first ever Grand Slam singles champion. It was the first tour-level title of her career and she has since won three more, including a pair of WTA 1000 crowns.
In the span of 11 months, she jumped 50 ranking spots to reach a career-high No.4 in the world and her rapid progress has required a great deal of adjustment and a capacity to absorb lessons from every opportunity.
One of those lessons came during last year’s offseason when she parted ways with her coach of six years, Piotr Sierzputowski, and agonised over the decision on who she would hire next.
Swiatek told WTA Insider last month that she spent many “sleepless nights” contemplating who would be her next coach and she eventually teamed up with Agnieszka Radwanska’s former mentor Tomasz Wiktorowski.
“Big decisions are never easy, especially when I've been working with my previous coach for like five years and he was with me since I was a junior, throughout the whole period of going to WTA,” explained Swiatek.
“So I didn’t know exactly what to expect and if I'm going to be able to find the proper person to coach me next.
“The decision was hard, but at the end I reminded myself that all the decisions that I've made in my life actually were pretty positive even though it was hard to make them; so I guess I needed some time to reflect on the whole period when we worked together (with Piotr) and see the positive stuff, and also think about what I can learn more.”
Taking ownership of all aspects of one’s career can often be a daunting test for a young tennis player but Swiatek is taking it all in stride. She says she relies on her team for advice because “you need somebody who has bigger life experience to tell you actually what may be more positive or what may be right” but ultimately makes her own decisions.
When it comes to the business side of her tennis career, Swiatek is eager to learn and she has so far handled her sudden success, and the commercial interest in her that has come with it, in solid fashion.
“I was always aware that if I’m going to play tennis well, big money is going to come up and also some sponsorship deals. So that's part of the job and I was never intimidated because of that,” she says.
“It was also my goal to have this business side of sports develop more. Obviously, you're not going to be able to do that when you're a junior player or when you haven't been on tour, but with all the success that I had, I always wanted to use that potential.
“There are many players who are showing that even though their main job is playing tennis they can also have good business and also use their money to help people, to do some charity work and to make a difference. So I would want to be that kind of person in the future. But you also have to know when to focus just on the sport and just the basic kind of work that you're doing because you have to have a good balance between thinking about money and sponsorships and businesses and just tennis and practicing and hard work.”
The decision to work with Wiktorowski has so far proven to be a fruitful one as Swiatek is enjoying the best season start of her career. She made the semi-finals in Adelaide and the Australian Open before clinching the WTA 1000 title in Doha, defeating three top-seven players along the way.
She has been adopting a more aggressive game style that has required a shift in mindset after spending years believing more in her defensive skills and viewing herself as a clay-court specialist. Her impressive 14-3 win-loss record this season has all come on hard courts. The new plan is clearly paying off.
Swiatek says she is most proud of her consistency these past 15 months and of how she has become more proactive with her tennis on court this season.
“Staying aggressive and having more initiative on court and just going forward and being the first one to play fast; that was kind of a goal that I wanted to reach this season,” she added. “These tournaments on hard courts at the beginning of the year showed me that it's going to be really helpful and basically tennis is going that way, it’s going to be faster and faster; so I need to catch up with that. I’m pretty proud I achieved that and I want to continue doing that in the next tournaments.”
With the world’s top two players, Ashleigh Barty and Barbora Krejcikova both missing the action in Indian Wells, Swiatek could rise to a career-high No.2 in the world with a good run in the California desert this fortnight. The top ranking could be up for grabs soon and she admits the thought of summiting the rankings has crossed her mind.
“It’s coming up to my mind, I would say, but I try not to focus about that because the ranking is just a result of the work we do on court,” she says. “So the approach that I had for the whole three months of this season was pretty healthy.
“I'm just focusing on the next match and I’m checking rankings only like… I'm giving myself a day after a tournament to count points, check the rankings, to see in what place I am but during the tournament, when I'm practising, I'm just focusing on tennis because if I'm going to play well, the ranking is going to come.”
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