Iga Swiatek says she isn’t into “mainstream things”, which makes perfect sense because there is absolutely nothing mainstream about her.
The Polish tennis phenom, who enjoyed a stunning run to the French Open title last October for the loss of just 23 games, is not your average 19-year-old.
On the court, she mystifies her opponents with her heavy topspin and unconventional patterns.
“I think she has a really big game. It's very unique. I struggled a lot with how different she played. I just couldn't figure out her patterns or her serve or anything at all,” said her most recent victim Belinda Bencic, who fell to Swiatek in the Adelaide final last month.
The world No 15, who is making her Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships debut this week, has been travelling on tour with a sports psychologist since she was 17 – a route not typically taken by teenagers early on in their careers.
Up until last spring, her pre-match routine involved doing maths homework to relax. Since she graduated high school, her psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, has got her to do Sudoku puzzles as a substitute, and more recently, her down time has been taken up by constructing complex Lego structures.
Off the court, Swiatek is a self-described introvert. When she was younger, she felt she needed to find interesting topics to strike up conversations with people, which led her to develop a unique taste in music – for someone her age.
She rocks out to bands like AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam, while also appreciating the soul tunes of Marvin Gaye. She reads historical fiction from Ken Follett and attempted to learn the ukulele. She says she can go five days without using her phone – much to her father’s dismay because it means she’s not calling him every day – and that it’s easy for her to disconnect from the outside world.
“I don't like actually the mainstream thing, so I'm kind of looking everywhere for the inspiration,” she told reporters in Adelaide. “I was always introverted when I was younger. I thought I need things to be geeky about, to have some kind of topic to talk to other people. That was probably my motivation.”
So how does an introvert handle the kind of raging fandom surrounding Swiatek at the moment?
"I feel like I have two modes – one is work mode and one is private mode," she told The National on Saturday.
“So when I’m at work I can actually be more extroverted and when I’m meeting fans it’s usually comfortable for me, but in private life I’m more of an introvert; I just want to stay in my room and do Legos, as I’ve done the past two weeks, and with books. I have two modes and I’m switching between them.”
It’s a solid strategy for a fast-rising star whose Roland Garros triumph marked a first title in what was just her seventh Grand Slam main draw appearance. Swiatek entered Paris ranked No 54 in the world and crushed everyone that came her way, including world No 2 Simona Halep and No 6 Sofia Kenin.
A few weeks later, Swiatek clinched the WTA Fan Favourite award, placed second behind Robert Lewandowski at Poland’s Sports Personality of the Year gala, and was recently nominated for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year award.
“Winning the French Open as a first Polish player, there is a lot of buzz around that. I was discussing with my psychologist that I think I kind of wasn’t prepared for the success and she thinks that we were,” Swiatek said.
“I think it comes from my personality. I’m able to distance myself from everything when I feel like something is overwhelming me. I’m able to be in my bubble when I don’t think about the things that can stress me. It’s obviously not possible all the time but I’m learning how to do that more often.”
When conversing with Swiatek, the immediate thought that springs to mind is that she sounds like the most self-aware 19-year-old you’ve ever met. The hard work put in with Abramowicz is evident in the young Pole’s rhetoric and she rarely steers away from her big-picture perspective.
Asked to name her biggest dream in tennis, Swiatek first considers the usual: to win all four majors and an Olympic medal. She then quickly corrects herself and says: “Actually my biggest dream is not related to tennis. I would like to not be lost after I finish my career and not have that feeling that, ah, you don’t know what to do with your life anymore.”
It is why Swiatek still feels like she might go to university one day and why she insists on having interests away from the tennis court.
Seeded No 8 in Dubai this week, Swiatek has a first-round bye and awaits a qualifier or Polona Hercog in her opener. She comes into the tournament having won 16 of her last 18 matches – including two titles – and feeling confident about her game.
Some players avoid looking ahead in the draw, but Swiatek is already eyeing a potential third-round meeting with Garbine Muguruza, a player she singles out – alongside Serena Williams – as a dream match-up for her. “Hopefully it happens,” she said.
Considering her strong form and her dominant demeanour on court, it’s easy to forget that this is barely Swiatek’s third season on tour. She has only ever contested eight Grand Slam main draws, has played just 12 career matches against top-20 opposition and has yet to contest the main draw of some of the biggest events on tour like Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Cincinnati and Beijing.
When she spent two weeks practicing with Dubai top seed Elina Svitolina in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, Swiatek received some welcome advice from the 26-year-old Ukrainian.
“She’s a very nice person, very down-to-earth girl,” said Svitolina of Swiatek. “I think it’s only her third year on tour, and last year we missed six months with the lockdown so it’s kind of like her second year, so of course it’s very new for her; many tournaments that she didn’t play.
“We were chatting about the Asian swing, the different tournaments, different conditions. I was just sharing with her the experience. We built kind of like a friendship.”
For Swiatek, it’s not too difficult to reconcile the fact that she’s still only 19 with limited experience on tour, with the success and stardom she is currently enjoying. On court, she says she heavily relies on her intuition when it comes to decision-making and shot selection.
“I feel like I’m still 19, when I’m in that private mode. When I’m at work, when I’m playing or doing media I feel like I have a lot of experience,” she said.
A reminder of Swiatek’s youthful side comes up when she mentions Rafael Nadal. She has long admired the Spanish 20-time major champion, who himself captured his first of 13 French Open crowns at the age of 19.
“When I was younger it was his style of game and how he looks basically. But right now I also appreciate his behaviour off court because he seems like a really humble guy,” Swiatek said.
“He didn’t lose his mind with all that success that he has had through his career. I just really respect that he kind of stayed the same person that he was – I mean you never know because I only know the view the fans have, from the media, but I feel it’s real. So that’s why I like him.”