Iga Swiatek shows tantalising glimpses of new era of supremacy

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<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

For 10 minutes in the mid-afternoon, halfway through a first-round victory during which she seemed to be moving through a lighter air than her opponent, Jana Fett, Iga Swiatek did something interesting.

Swiatek had just taken the first set 6-0. At which point she fell apart. Very briefly. And not in a way that mattered, or amounted to much more than a ripple, a 21-year-old drifting off midway through a stroll against the world No 252.

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But it was enough to add a note of interest to Swiatek’s march towards a 36th successive win, now the longest women’s singles winning run of this century. It is a run that poses its own questions about things like trajectory, end points, uplift. What exactly are we witnessing? How far can it go?

Swiatek had been imperious on a Centre Court blown by the freezing June wind of an English high‑summer day. But suddenly she was looping her backhand drives into the tramlines, working the net like a boxer on the heavy bag, clanking out stray forehands off the frame with the sound of a spoon slapping an empty beer can.

As Fett applied some pressure Swiatek started crouching lower, a little weirdly, hitting off her knees in a kind of Elvis-in-Vegas pose. Fett had chances to take it to 4-1 but was let down by her own lack of precision. The weather shifted. Swiatek took the next five games to close out the match and set up a second-round meeting with Lesley Kerkhove of the Netherlands.

And right now she is a fascinating figure, following an arc that doesn’t have an end point just yet. At the start of her current winning run Swiatek was ranked No 7 in the world. Three months on she’s out on her own, and with a set of tools – backhand, serve, movement – that offer up tantalising little glimpses of era-potential, of ultimacy, of a Swiatek Supremacy.

There are of course levels to this. Venus Williams set her own 35-match winning streak in 2000, a year before Swiatek was born. That run was imperial-age stuff for Venus, taking her through two grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal, with five successive wins against the players ranked No 1 and No 2. Swiatek has racked up six tournament wins of her own, three on hard courts, three on clay. At the end of this 6-0, 6-3 win she was asked if she was feeling comfortable on grass yet. “Um … we’ll see,” she said, being nice.

Iga Swiatek celebrates after beating Jana Fett to seal her 36th straight win.
Iga Swiatek celebrates after beating Jana Fett to seal her 36th straight win. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Either way she was always winning this match, right from the first point. Swiatek is tall and slender, all levers, shoulders, small chopping steps, with that sense of authenticity elite athletes have, as though presenting an ideal version of basic human motion, things like walking and jogging and lifting a tennis ball into the air, movements that pretty much belong to them now.

There was art here, too. Swiatek makes the ball fizz, hitting up and over with such force you can see that thing start to dip as it shaves the net cord. At times in the opening set she sent the ball burning past Fett with backhands from the baseline that weren’t a response to an error or a short ball but were just too fast, too hard, too good, the shots of somebody playing another game.

Frankly Fett just wasn’t equipped to stand in front of this juggernaut. As the first set slipped away, already half-forgotten like a woozy late lunch, it was tempting to wonder if Swiatek would need a brisk walk at the end just to lose the chill, get the heart rate going.

What she will take from this game, as will her opponents in the rounds to come, is the lull at the start of the second set. At times she was slow to come forward. For a while Fett found some joy hammering the serve back at Swiatek’s feet, making her stoop. This is the other thing about those long levers types, with their easy grace, their synchronised moving parts: the timing can go on a breezy day and a skiddy surface.

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Swiatek lost her serve to love. And suddenly Fett, who came here as a qualifier, a bounty hunter with no form behind her, was being willed on by a crowd that was fond but still just a little bit cool toward this newbie world No 1.

Wimbledon will do this. At the end there was polite applause and a cheer for the (kind of) record run. Swiatek was asked about opening on Centre Court in the absence of last year’s champion, Ash Barty, and was good enough to give a serious answer when she could have just pointed to her ranking. “It’s a huge honour. But … I think I earned it.”

She shrugged off the winning streak too, talking about how amazing is it to be mentioned in the same breath as the Williams sisters, whom she clearly adores. Swiatek showed both sides of herself: the rising star and the ingenue on grass, a grand talent learning this place, its ways and its angles. The challenge for the rest of the field is to get to her first. They’d better hurry.

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