Iga Swiatek has been the No. 1 player in women's tennis for 74 weeks and counting.
The 22-year-old has described being the top-ranked star as feeling like "everybody is chasing me."
Swiatek and her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, spoke to Insider about handling the pressure.
Iga Swiatek is the brightest star in women's tennis.
With four Grand Slam titles and a whopping 74 weeks as world No. 1 under her belt, the 22-year-old Pole has dominated the field to become women's tennis' most fearsome competitor since Serena Williams, Ash Barty, and Naomi Osaka stepped away from the sport.
But just because she's clinical on the court doesn't mean she's immune to the pressures that come with the role of perennial frontrunner. During a stunningly vulnerable interview in Netflix's "Break Point" docu-series — filmed during her run to the 2022 US Open title — Swiatek described the heavy emotions accompanying her No. 1 ranking.
"I feel like everybody is chasing me," she said. "I have a lot going on in my mind."
Swiatek's full-time sports psychologist — Daria Abramowicz — has spent years helping the young star prepare for having such a massive target on her back. The 35-year-old, who travels with Swiatek and her team, believes that the fight to stay atop tennis' tallest mountain can be more arduous than the climb itself.
Players devote their entire lives to reaching the summit. But once they plant their flag, Abramowicz says, they're faced with a question they'd never paused to consider: "What happens next?"
"We often — even sports psychologists, in my opinion — focus too much on managing losses and failure rather than managing and teaching athletes, coaches, managers, agents, and teams how to manage success," Abramowicz told Insider. "And in a society in which we want success and we dream of success so hard, my advice would be that we should focus on preparing these young people and taking care of them a little bit more and teaching them how to manage success on a very different level."
A major component of her work with Swiatek, Abramowicz says, revolves around "maintaining healthy and high standards instead of focusing on expectations." And that's not just during each tournament or season, "but also in terms of long-term goals and big picture for her whole career."
Even with her mental coach's guidance, Swiatek told Insider "it wasn't easy" to adjust to the pressures of being tennis' top player. She said the start of the 2023 season — about nine months into her run as world No. 1 — "was pretty rough for me" as opponents began "to analyze my game, to learn a little bit more" about how she operated on the court.
But she knows that "if you want to be the best player in the world" — which Swiatek does — "you have to be ready" for other players on tour to take aim at you. So she wasn't surprised when, in watching "Break Point," she heard world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka explicitly state that "Iga is the target for me."
"I know that I won many matches against these players in the past — I understand their feelings," Swiatek told Insider. "But it doesn't really matter for me. I want to win anyway, no matter what they say."
The Pole's ability to tune out such noise has been crucial to her continued success. Abramowicz says Swiatek has internalized a "universal truth around all of this: that the only things that we can control are the things that we can control."
From the beginning of their work together, Abramowicz has helped Swiatek learn to distinguish between the factors she can and cannot control and then "choose the right ones to focus on."
In psychology, that concept is known as "environmental mastery." In tennis, it's a champion's mentality.
So rather than obsessing over "rankings and points," as Swiatek explained to Insider, she's "learned that I should just focus on myself."
"I learned that you shouldn't really just overanalyze it or think about it," she said of her top ranking. "You should just play the game the same way as you would if your ranking was lower. You just have to use the experience, for sure, and the confidence, but still remember that the most important thing is to develop as a player."
The strategy has undoubtedly worked so far; Swiatek has managed to thrive despite the hulking expectations placed on her shoulders. In the year since she hoisted her first US Open trophy, Swiatek has held on to her top ranking and added another Grand Slam trophy to her mantle.
Now, she's seeking to become the first woman to successfully defend her US Open singles title since Williams — widely considered the sport's greatest of all time — did so in 2014. Such a feat would give Swiatek an elusive fifth Grand Slam title, putting her in the exclusive company of 12 other players who have won five or more major women's singles championships in the Open Era.
But thinking that far ahead is unhelpful to Swiatek, who is working hard to turn her focus away from talk of title defenses, records, or any other "pressures that come with being a defending champion," Abramowicz told Insider.
"It's just another day, another story."
Read the original article on Insider