Iga Swiatek’s title defence at the US Open and time at the top of the world’s rankings came to an abrupt end on Sunday, after she was shocked by Jelena Ostapenko.
Sunday’s three-set loss means Swiatek, 22, has been pushed from her world No 1 perch after a staggering 75 consecutive weeks.
A former French Open champion, Ostapenko was relatively understated after delivering the upset of the tournament. To her, she had simply exposed Swiatek’s well-known Achilles heel: big hitting opponents (as highlighted in below video).
“I think the main thing is that she doesn’t really like to play against big hitters,” Ostapenko said of her victory. “The three girls and me. She likes to have some time. When I play fast, aggressive and powerful, she’s a little bit in trouble.”
The three girls the Latvian mentions are fellow major tournament winners Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Barbora Krejcikova. Along with Ostapenko, these women have delivered six of Swiatek’s 10 losses this season. Last year was a similar story, with three of her nine losses coming against this group, plus a fourth from the powerful, if inconsistent, Madison Keys’s racket.
The irony is that Swiatek can count herself as one of these big-hitters too. The topspin on her ferocious forehand is the best on tour, and her ruthless results make her a fearsome opponent for just about any other woman on tour. But that grandeur has worn off for the select few who know they can go toe-to-toe, and so often get the better of her.
It only seems fitting that this loss in New York sees Swiatek make way for Sabalenka, who rises to the top of the rankings for the first time in her career. Sabalenka is the queen bee of the big-bash, first-strike tennis which Swiatek so often buckles against. In their most recent meeting in the Madrid final, on Swiatek’s favoured clay surface, the Polish player also lost.
Meanwhile, Sunday night was Swiatek’s fourth loss in four meetings with 26-year-old Ostapenko. Former Wimbledon champion Rybakina – who has a huge serve like Sabalenka and thunderous, flatter ball-striking like Ostapenko – has won all three of her meetings with Swiatek in 2023 (one through a third-set injury retirement). Then Krejcikova won both times they faced each other since Swiatek rose to the top of the rankings, and both wins came at tournament finals.
‘She didn’t like the power I was giving her’
That kind of record must surely have played on Swiatek’s mind as Ostapenko – who flits between being unreliable or unplayable – hit winner after winner on Arthur Ashe on Sunday night. She thrives as the disruptor and the villain, and Swiatek’s game crumbled in the third set and she lost 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 within two hours.
“I mean, I had nothing to lose today,” Ostapenko said. “I saw all the matches that we played before the match today. I was analysing the game. I pretty much knew what to do against her. I put her under pressure, of course, because I was hitting many winners, and she didn’t like the power I was giving her because she needed some time to play.”
Swiatek’s run at No 1 should not be ignored
This loss does not undo the supreme couple of seasons young Swiatek has crafted. She has brought more consistency to the erratic WTA Tour than any player (other than the prematurely-retired Ash Barty) in recent memory. Swiatek won three of the last seven major titles, and often during her runs to those titles obliterated opponents with such one-sided scorelines that she barely lost games, let alone sets. She also ranks in third place (behind Barty and Serena Williams) for most consecutive weeks at world No 1 this century.
Known for her intense, quirky nature, during her run at the top of women’s tennis, Swiatek’s close circle have created a protective bubble around her in order to focus entirely on her tennis.
She has said the mental side of her game is key and she travels with a sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz 24/7. Her comparatively poor record against these powerful rivals will be as much a mental hurdle as a physical one, and no doubt will be the focus of her coming months. She admitted that the constant pressure of being the favourite had been weighing on her.
”[Being No 1] it meant a lot, obviously. It was great. On the other hand, this last part, it was pretty exhausting,” she said. “When you lose it, there are some sad emotions.
“This season… was really tough and intense. It’s not easy to cope with all of this stuff. There are plenty of things that I know I should have done differently. Maybe I’m not mature enough yet to do that. I’m really working hard to not think about this stuff a lot. Sometimes when you force yourself not to think about stuff, the result is the opposite.”
Despite her disappointment, Swiatek spoke confidently about her plans for “when” she gets back to the top of the rankings. That fight could further ignite the rivalries at the top of women’s tennis: “For sure when I’m going to be next time 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. 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.”