Iga Swiatek thrives by taking care of mental as well as physical strength

Predicting the future is a business best left for gamblers and fools. But here is one regardless. Shortly after 1pm on Tuesday, Iga Swiatek will hit a bullwhip forehand with such violence and beauty it will make the Centre Court crowd gasp and purr. And before too long the wider British sporting public will also grasp what the tennis world knows already: the 21-year-old Pole is a generational talent heading for multiple grand slams.

Swiatek’s movement is sublime, her power obvious. The US Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe, has even compared the venom on her groundstrokes favourably with those of Serena Williams. “I haven’t seen any woman player hit with that much spin and pace,” he said recently. “Serena does it all, but Serena doesn’t play with anywhere near the sort of topspin and acceleration of the racket that this woman plays with.”

That is some praise. But the numbers back him up. According to the Women’s Tennis Association, when Swiatek won her first French Open, in 2020, she not only hit the ball harder, on average, than any other woman in the draw but her fastest forehand – 79mph – was exceeded only by Jannik Sinner on the men’s side.

Meanwhile the peak revolutions per minute of topspin on her forehand in her 2020 final against Sofia Kenin hit 3453 rpm – higher than many men in the same tournament.

But, intriguingly, there is something else that makes Swiatek stand out: the way she stresses how much psychology plays a role in her success.

Unusually she even has a renowned performance psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, with her on the circuit, working daily on her mind to make it every bit as powerful as her forehand.

When I spoke to Abramowicz recently, I asked how Swiatek copes with the scrutiny that comes from winning an extraordinary 35 matches in a row – and a record of domination that has brought comparisons with Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams. The starting point, she stressed, was doing everything possible to both optimise sports performance on the court and mental health off it.

“The two are related,” she said. “Sometimes an athlete can shut down everything else when they play. But it’s always just short-term. And when you’re on court, competing against the best in the world, then there is stress, there’s tension, there is a lot of pressure and it shows.”

Breathwork, visualisation and meditation were all important techniques Swiatek uses to calm the mind, she suggested, alongside technology based on EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain, and heart rate variability. But Abramowicz, who always gives Swiatek a pep talk 10-15 minutes before she goes on court, said she was working on learning to relish the difficult moments while playing too.

“It’s a very long-term aim we have: to create this attitude where if a person is in a stressful situation they are able to focus on solving problems, to face challenges,” she said. “When Iga played against Ash Barty in Madrid last year, I saw Ash come to the box to take her towel between points and say to her team, ‘Gosh, I’ve haven’t played this way for a few months’ – and she seemed excited to have to solve something on court. I’m really trying to implement that attitude, too.”

In one sense, there is nothing new here. Tennis is a supremely mental game.

Books have been written – and fortunes made – about how to stop our brains committing random acts of self-sabotage. Fifty years ago Tim Gallwey suggested Zen thinking in The Inner Game of Tennis. While Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly made tennis sound like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Yet it is rare for an athlete with the talent of Swiatek to speak up and speak out.

It is also particularly notable given that being world No 1 brings challenges that not everyone enjoys. Naomi Osaka stepped away from the game for a while to protect her mental health, while Barty decided to retire at 25. The glare and abuse from social media doesn’t help either. Abramowicz says that she works with players to deal with it in a “smart way” – realising that they can’t control everything while getting them to appreciate “their strengths, goals, visions and dreams and to develop a very strong sense of self worth”.

It is a message that Abramowicz and her team are now delivering to all Asics-sponsored athletes as part of its plan to do more to help them protect their mental health. Such an approach, the first by a major sports brand, is long overdue. One study among 384 European professional football players, published in 2017, found that 37% had symptoms of anxiety or depression at some point over a 12-month period. Others, conducted among elite Australian and French athletes, have found the figure ranges from 17%-45% in a squad.

Part of the problem – as one study found – is that “athletes’ self-perceptions of themselves as superior serves as an internal barrier to seeking mental health treatment, especially in elite sport”. However Abramowicz says she hopes that by being more vocal about mental health, “we will take off the stigma a little bit.” For now, though, Swiatek’s focus is only on her first-round match on Tuesday. So far her best result at Wimbledon was a last-16 defeat against Ons Jabeur but while grass isn’t her best surface, there seems no good reason why she cannot go deeper this year.

And while for the English tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight, as my colleague Tim Adams famously said, Swiatek’s body – and mind – looks ready to leave a deep impression.

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