French Open: Iga Swiatek conquers the pressure of being unbeatable

Iga Swiatek takes home 2024 French Open title (1:04)

Check out some numbers behind Iga Swiatek's third straight French Open title. (1:04)


As she lay on a yoga mat on the floor, still in her clothing from the match, she covered her face as much as she could with her hand and her hat, but she couldn't control the tears from streaming down her face.

Swiatek, the two-time defending champion, was just minutes removed from her French Open second-round match against Naomi Osaka and the nearly three-hour clash had pushed her to her limits, testing her until the final points.

Despite trailing 4-1 in the deciding set and later facing match point, Swiatek won the match -- but the emotional toll it had taken was obvious with every tear, every chest heave. Video of the scene quickly went viral.

"[I was] just overwhelmed with emotions," Swiatek said later. "I honestly thought that I'm going to be out of the tournament. Even though I felt something on court, it kind of hit me after. I was happy that I won, but I still felt like I was really on the edge."

Nine days and five matches later, Swiatek emerged victorious -- yet again.

On Saturday, she claimed her fourth title at Roland Garros, and fifth major trophy, with a dominant 6-2, 6-1 victory over Jasmine Paolini in just 68 minutes. She now has the most Grand Slam titles of any woman on tour, save for Venus Williams, and she joined Roger Federer and Monica Seles as the only players in the Open Era to win all five of their first major final appearances.

She became the first woman since Justine Henin to win three consecutive Roland Garros titles, and is tied with Henin for the third-most singles titles among women at the tournament in the Open Era.

But what Swiatek revealed after her match over Osaka made this victory different from all those before. While Saturday's clash was relatively straightforward, as were all of the matches following the battle with Osaka, that uncontrolled emotion proved just how overwhelming the pressure of being the favorite and world No. 1 can be.

And yet, Swiatek found a way to handle it all and win.

"I was almost out of the tournament in the second round," Swiatek said to the crowd after the final. "I needed to believe that this one is going to be possible, so it's been a very emotional tournament."

SWIATEK, WHO TURNED 23 during the tournament, has been the world No. 1 for all but eight weeks the past two years. She has been a major champion since October 2020 and, while others have struggled with the attention and fame that comes with this distinction, Swiatek has rarely faltered on the court despite the growing expectations.

In fact, she almost seemed ready for it.

Swiatek had started working with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz in 2019 and, after stunning the field at the pandemic-delayed French Open in 2020, Swiatek -- then ranked No. 54 -- told reporters she thought the new attention and expectations were "going to be OK for me."

And instead of waxing poetic about childhood dreams of being the top-ranked player in the world or her desire to win multiple major titles, Swiatek immediately said her priority would be to find consistency in her results going forward.

"That's why we [in women's tennis] have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not as consistent as Rafa [Nadal], Roger [Federer], and Novak [Djokovic]," Swiatek said. "That's why my goal is going to be to be consistent. It's going to be really hard to achieve that."

It's a mentality that has continued to serve her well.

Dr. Ashwin Patel, a mental performance consultant and executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, has never worked with Swiatek but has heard similar sentiments expressed by other high-achieving professional athletes, and says he believes it to be paramount to their success.

"There's this false idea that once an athlete has gotten to the top then they're going to suddenly feel fulfilled and happy, but I've never actually heard an athlete say that," Patel told ESPN. "For the elite athletes, it's the pursuit of excellence that drives them, the titles and wins are simply the byproduct of that, but they truly just love getting better. They find excitement in improving and making those technical changes and implementing them. Happiness doesn't come from the results but the challenge of it all."

For Swiatek, the results have come too. Since her breakthrough in Paris less than four years ago, Swiatek has won 21 more titles, including the 2022 and 2023 French Open, the 2022 US Open, the 2023 WTA Finals and 10 at the 1000-level. She took over the No. 1 spot in April 2022, following the retirement of Ashleigh Barty, and was in the middle of what became a 37-match win streak. But Swiatek seemed to be taking it all in stride.

"After Roland Garros [in 2020], we also started to kind of prepare for the success, and for sure, there are going to be tough moments and there is going to be huge amount of pressure," Swiatek said at the time. "I don't really know how that feels exactly, because I have never been a No. 1. We are going to have to see and react probably."

For 17 months, she showed few outward signs of the pressure. She kept winning and held onto the ranking. But when Aryna Sabalenka closed in on her in 2023, and took over the top spot following the US Open, Swiatek admitted she was "sad" to lose it but had found holding onto it "exhausting." She said she would learn from the experience.

"Next time [I'm] in the same situation, I'm going to do some stuff differently because, yeah, it was a little bit stressful, and it shouldn't be," Swiatek said. "I mean, tennis is stressful overall, but I should embrace it a little bit more. I'll do it differently next time, so I guess that's positive."

"I'm really proud of myself that I didn't stop and the pressure didn't squeeze me down." Iga Swiatek

She reclaimed the No. 1 ranking eight weeks later following her victory at the WTA Finals, and hasn't relinquished it since. Swiatek now has a more-than-3,000 point lead over Coco Gauff, the new No. 2, in the rankings.

"I feel like because I'm at the top of the WTA I should have some standards," Swiatek said in February. "Sometimes it's a little bit harder to kind of take it easy, because you feel like everybody is chasing you. There is some stuff that's changed because of the position that you're at, but on the other hand, I always try to remind myself that I'm still the same person no matter what my ranking is and no matter what the number next to my name is."

Patel said the change in perspective of being No. 1 could simply be a matter of reframing how Swiatek has looked at it.

"It could be the recognition that once you've reached a certain level of success, it doesn't mean it's promised," Patel said. "Then it's this ability to say, 'I'm experiencing some adversity, how am I going to solve this? How am I going to work towards getting it back?' And then looking at it as an opportunity to get it back and seeing that as an exciting prospect, and enjoying the process to getting there."

DURING HER MATCH against Osaka, Swiatek didn't look like she was enjoying the process or the battle. She looked defeated, particularly during the second set in which she lost 6-1. But in the decider, she seemed to retake control. She started taking a few extra seconds between points and walking to her towel. Then she began to play her own game, and not letting Osaka dictate the style of play. Point by point, she fought her way back into the match.

Sabalenka understood her emotional reaction after the win, and said it was what she needed to do to regroup ahead of her next match.

"I totally get it, it was [a] very tough match," Sabalenka, the reigning two-time Australian Open champion and now world No. 3, said. "[She] was really close to [losing] that match. I guess she was just throwing out all those -- not negative -- but all the tension out. I think I would do actually the same. Yeah, there is a lot of pressure in tennis, but only if you focus in on that pressure."

The comeback victory and tearful release seemed to have lit a fire under Swiatek in Paris. Even playing against major champions like Gauff in the semifinals and Marketa Vondrousova in the quarterfinals, Swiatek never gave up more than six games in a match. Vondrousova, the reigning Wimbledon champion, won just two games in total.

On Saturday against Paolini, Swiatek certainly looked as if she had been there before. After being broken in the third game of the match, Swiatek immediately responded by raising her level. She won the next 10 games -- and 11 of the final 12 -- with a blistering barrage of powerful shots and ever-increasing momentum. The outcome felt assured for most of the match. But yet, when it was over, Swiatek briefly fell to her knees on the clay in celebration, before exchanging a hug with Paolini at the net. Then she rejoiced with her team and family in the stands.

With five major titles and a firm hold on No. 1, Swiatek has proved she's not just the game's most dominant superstar, but also perhaps the most mentally strong.

And now she believes it too.

"I knew I had the game to win this tournament, even though I was really close to being out of it in [the] second round against Naomi," Swiatek said on NBC after the final. "I don't know. I just survived that match and then it went. I just played with huge confidence, so I'm really proud of myself that I didn't stop and the pressure didn't squeeze me down."