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Iga Swiatek’s cold logic makes sure French Open trophy is in safe hands

<span>Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

The man holding the camera leaned in towards Iga Swiatek. The man holding the pen held it out to her. The new French Open champion thought for a while about how to encapsulate her torrent of thoughts and emotions into a little glass square around the size of a Pop Tart. Eventually she scrawled a number – #4, for her fourth grand slam title – and a single word. “Surréel.

And it really was surreal, or at least as about as surreal as it can ever be watching a habitual major champion win another major. For if the outcome was expected then virtually nothing else about this final was. It was one thing, and then suddenly it became a whole other thing: a regal procession that somehow morphed into a scrap for survival against the fearless and admirable Karolina Muchova, a match that dragged the world No 1 to places she had never been before, places she never wanted to go.

Related: Swiatek digs deep to overcome Muchova in thrilling French Open final

In a way, Swiatek’s whole existence has been constructed around avoiding these moments of high stress and high emotion. It is why she takes a psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, with her everywhere she goes on tour. Why she has coping strategies and mental exercises to preserve her balance. Why she constructs points with a cold and deadly logic that we may as well call genius. It is why Abramowicz banned her from finishing Gone With the Wind on the day of a crucial match, for fear that the highly strung conclusion would drain her energy.

It is why she walks on to court with headphones on, blocking out the noise, trying to stay in her safe space until the last possible moment. Indeed Swiatek’s entire career feels like a search for safety, an attempt to protect herself from the tides and judgment of a sport that has broken and exhausted so many of her peers. So she keeps her focus within those hard white lines, ekes out the little moments of stillness when the Paris heat is sticky and airless and the only sound is from the distant traffic on the périphérique.

For a set and a half, it worked as well as it ever did. Swiatek was serving well, cutting off the angles, keeping the points within her comfort zone. But even here you could see the warning signs, if you knew what you were looking for. There were times when she failed to go for clean winners, when she chose not to attack the net when the opportunity was available. It was almost as if she was less interested in seizing the trophy than in biding her time until it was hers.

Iga Swiatek is kept at full stretch by Karolina Muchova.
Iga Swiatek is kept at full stretch by Karolina Muchova. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Often these are noted as Swiatek’s biggest strengths. The ability to build a point, to erode an opponent by increments, to slowly eliminate all the other possibilities until only victory remains. But as Muchova began to find her range on the forehand, began to build in confidence and move into the court, as the crowd began to swing behind the Czech underdog, you could see the layers and the masks melting away, her place of safety slowly being winnowed down. A double fault gave Muchova a crucial break and brought the first exasperated entreaty to her box.

It was the first set Swiatek had lost in this tournament, the first set she had ever lost in a grand slam final, and suddenly nothing felt familiar. She knows about defeat. She knows about pressure. But she also knows about the loneliness of the pinnacle, the dangers of wanting to preserve the thing you already have, of wanting not to lose more than you want to win. And perhaps it was only when she went a break down in the final set, when all hope seemed lost, that the real Swiatek began to emerge.

The only way Swiatekshe could preserve her place of safety was to embrace the danger. And perhaps more than any of her other triumphs, this win will shape her. One of the reasons Swiatek is so relatable as an athlete and a person is that her vulnerabilities are never far from the surface. There is a paradox there between her dominance on the court and her search for protection off it. This match, more than any other, fused those two worlds together. It was a win made of imperfections, of feeble service games, of cracks in the facade, a victory that will probably encourage rather than dishearten her rivals, and yet the sort of win she probably needed more than any other.

Fittingly, even the presentation was flawed. As Swiatek hoisted the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen aloft, the lid fell off and clattered to the red earth below. Undeterred, she lifted it once more before wrapping her arms around it, hugging this thing close to her chest, and in that moment it was impossible to tell whether she was protecting it, or it her.