As Iga Swiatek settles into her first press conference at the Australian Open, one of the early, simple questions posed to her elicits a sigh. On the verge of her first grand slam since winning the French Open aged just 19, when she dropped just 28 games and mercilessly hammered Simona Halep en route, a journalist wonders what the biggest surprise was of being a grand slam champion. “The biggest surprise actually isn’t really positive,” says Swiatek.
“I was always imagining that when I’m going to win a grand slam, I’m going to just enjoy it for the rest of my life, it’s going to be rainbows everywhere, I’m going to be some kind of at peace in myself that I already won a grand slam and I reached my goal.
“The truth is that humans aren’t like that: they just want more. I feel expectations even though I did something great at the French Open. I want more, basically. I feel more pressure and expectations. I also feel that it’s hard to prepare for that moment.”
It reflects the fact that Swiatek has found herself in what is simultaneously one of the most envied and complicated positions in tennis. After winning her first slam title, she now must deal with all of the pressure, expectations and attention that come with it.
The scale of how life can change so dramatically with something as simple as seven wins is often not fully understood. A year ago, Swiatek was a school student who loved classic rock, binged on Marvel movies and just also happened to have a stratospheric talent. Unlike some other athletes, school was so important to her that she would miss chunks of the tennis season to take her exams.
Despite being one of the best prospects of her generation – a junior French Open champion who handled the complicated transition to the professional circuit with ease – her future was still not certain. She had always told herself that if it was not clear that she had a future at the highest level, she would head to university.
Iga Swiatek kisses her French Open trophy. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
“I always wanted to have kind of a plan B, so if I’m not going to be playing tennis pretty well, I’ll always have some other options in my life,” she says. “But right now it seems that I am for sure going to be a tennis player. I know that this is my life.”
After Paris, she returned to Warsaw to obligations far weightier than homework. When she walks around Polish streets, she is frequently spotted. She finished the year by being given the Golden Cross of Merit, a state decoration granted by the president for services to the country, and alsocame second in Poland’s sportsperson of the year contest.
That award show provided a further example of her new life as she shared the stage with the victor, the Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski. After fist-pumping with trophies in their hands both were keen to speak with each other. “During the break when we wanted to talk, all the people suddenly came and they wanted to take a photo of us. We didn’t get a chance to talk longer.”
She gives an example of how no longer being an underdog has changed her. Two weeks before the French Open, she practised with Elina Svitolina in Rome. Svitolina was also her training partner during two weeks of modified quarantine last month in Australia. Her reaction to their battles was starkly different.
“I remember when I was playing against her in Rome, we sparred. We had 6-6. I thought: ‘Whoa, I’m playing with such a player and we were playing on the same level? Wow, that’s great.’ I felt really good about myself. Right now I feel that after the French Open my expectations got a little bit higher. When I play good tennis I expect from myself that I’m going to win with even more advantage. But actually it was just two weeks [before Paris].”
Swiatek will face Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, the world No 74, in her first round, while a fourth-round rematch against Halep beckons if she can find a way to focus and play calmly, but for now her goals are more modest.
“First of all, I am trying to think about the smallest things, like going back to my roots, just playing tennis,” she says. “I’m trying to enjoy that I’m here. Forget about the tournament, forget about my practices, just living in the moment and being happy that I can travel and I can be here.”