Coping With Weaknesses: Iga Swiatek And Her Serve - UBITENNIS
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Coping With Weaknesses: Iga Swiatek And Her Serve

Whenever world No.1 Iga Swiatek incurs defeats, the performance of her serve often comes under scrutiny. Are there opportunities to improve this aspect of her game, and what might happen in the future?

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Originally published by Ubitennis.com on 24/02/2024

March 2022: out of the blue, shortly after being crowned Australian Open champion, Ashleigh Barty announces her retirement from tennis. At just 25 years old, she bows out as the world number 1. It’s the eve of the Miami Open and Iga Swiatek, a glistening winner in Indian Wells, takes her place.

Questions arised about what might happen without the player who had monopolized the first position in the rankings for the past three seasons. Barty’s departure threw the entire women’s circuit off balance, to such an extent that even her successor, Swiatek, initially struggled to accept her new role. In a press conference, she admits: “When I learned of her retirement, I cried for a long time. It will certainly be something special for me to be number 1, but I never expected it to happen this way.”

Nearly two years later, we can undoubtedly say that Swiatek has proven to be a worthy and authentic number 1. Her supremacy has thrived thanks to numerous prestigious victories (including Slams and WTA Finals). Perhaps only when the grass swing gets under way she is not the title favorite.

Some data: since March 2022, Iga has only not held the top spot of the WTA rankings for eight weeks (credit to Aryna Sabalenka). Indeed, since Miami Open 2022 Swiatek has been cruising along with an 87.5% win percentage (126 wins, 18 losses). A figure that has been achieved only by the all-time greats.

Yet even Iga is not immune to criticism, especially on the (rare) occasions when she loses. She often manages to dominate her opponents, churning out 6-0s and 6-1s, but sometimes her confidence seems to slump, particularly when she is facing players who are capable of attacking her serve. Because one thing is certain: Iga is highly talented, but compared to the former number 1 Barty, she does not possess an equally effective serve.

It’s not sheer coincidence that Swiatek’s Achilles’ heel is Jelena Ostapenko. Ostapenko is famous for her ability to come up with winners in rapid succession during rallies, but she also possesses another strength, less publicized yet equally special: an aggressive and top-quality return of serve.

Four matches, four defeats: Ostapenko is kryptonite for Iga. In their matches, one of the recurring situations occurs when Swiatek is forced to resort to her second serve. Iga serves her typical “half-slice” down the T (and short); Ostapenko pounces upon it, either hitting a winner or gaining the upper hand in the rally. Again and again. Inevitably, such vulnerability on serve ends up affecting the entire match, both technically and mentally, as evidenced by their head-to-head.

Given that Swiatek is still very young (born on May 31, 2001), it is natural to think that she may have room for improvement, addressing this deficiency. As of today, it’s hard to see consolidated progress, but since we’re talking about a tennis player who is still to turn 23, it’s premature to consider such progress impossible. And then the serve is the starting shot, therefore it is not influenced by the quality of the opponent’s shots. It’s the only shot that can be developed in total autonomy.

Given these premises, what can we imagine for the future? I would say we can envision three possible scenarios. However, evaluating such matters “from the outside” is always a risky endeavour.

SCENARIO 1

Scenario number 1, the most optimistic. Swiatek, along with her team, succeeds in significantly improving her serve, moving up an extra notch in terms of quality. After all, even today Iga is capable of serving over 180 km/h, but she does it sporadically and her percentages are low. If she were to consolidate a classic, powerful serve, the progress would be crucial.

And perhaps, based on this progress, she could add to her repertoire a consistent second serve (around 150-155 km/h), which would allow her to rely on something different from her usual sliced second serve. Because in my opinion, there are two main problems with her current second serve: it’s often too short and almost always in the same direction, aimed at a generic area in the center of the service box; a trajectory that does not bother her opponents.

Some may argue that I have overlooked the kick serve, but I find it hard to believe that, starting from her current condition, Swiatek can develop a kick serve which could really make a difference. Also because it’s a shot that requires a special ability to push with the back and a muscular strength more typical of men than women. Among the top players, perhaps only Madison Keys regularly relies on a kick serve to build her game.

SCENARIO 2

The second scenario, halfway between optimism and pessimism. Swiatek fails to make progress in power serves, and without significant changes, she works at curbing her second serve flaws. If I were in her team, as a first objective, I would at least try to increase the depth of her second serve, evaluating to which extent the increased risk affects the number of double faults. The risk should be offset by a better percentage of points won, thanks to the reduced vulnerability of the serve.

And then I would try to improve the directionality of Iga’s second serve, so as to force opponents to hit either forehand or backhand. I emphasize this because sometimes Swiatek struggles with this aspect as well.

An example, related to the second-round match against Danielle Collins at the Australian Open 2024. Well, even though facing an opponent who is much more dangerous off her backhand, often Iga failed to find the necessary direction to force her to return on the forehand side. In the end Iga managed to win that match (6-4, 3-6, 6-4, recovering from 1-4 down in the third set), but at times, it seemed like watching the semifinal match they played  at the AO two years earlier. A match won by Collins 6-4, 6-1, in which Iga was constantly overpowered by Danielle’s returns.

SCENARIO 3

Third scenario, the most pessimistic. Swiatek’s serve remains approximately the same as it is now, and Iga is forced to live with her weaknesses. Obviously, her opponents are aware of the situation: this means that more and more frequently all the players will try to exploit Swiatek’s problems to their advantage.

In this scenario, at first glance, there don’t seem to be any positive elements for Iga. But it’s not certain. Swiatek could realize that she can’t improve her starting shot, thus focusing on a strategy to minimize the damages. This could be achieved by working on the correlation between the opponent’s return and her own shot coming out of the serve. Iga possesses extraordinary reactivity and balance skills, which could help her progress specifically on the effectiveness of the third shot during the point. Of course, in terms of technical/tactical aspects, these would be small improvements, but often matches are decided by few points and these small improvements can become the points needed to turn a defeat into a victory.

But what could have a greater impact is the mental aspect. My feeling is that Iga is a very reflective and self-critical player. A self-critical attitude is productive during growth stages because it nurtures commitment and, consequently, progress. However, once one reaches their limits, a highly self-critical attitude risks becoming counterproductive. At that point, it may be better to accept the situation and work with what one has, without despairing if perfection cannot be reached.

A few examples are provided by number ones of women’s tennis of the past years. Let’s start with Ashleigh Barty. I am convinced that one of the aspects that led Ash to the very top, was the decision to use her topspin backhand less and less and rely on her one-handed slice backhand. In fact, as technically complete as she was, Barty never really succeeded in effectively executing her two-handed backhand, despite her frequent attempts to use it in the early stages of her career.

So, my thesis is that the choice to give up hitting the topspin backhand contributed to making her calm and therefore stronger on court. Because certainly, in many situations, the slice backhand is not at all a second best, considering it can be very tricky for opponents to cope with it, and can influence the entire rally. In some moments (for example, on passing shots or when one needs to increase pace and open up the court), the topspin backhand is still the best option. Yet, in the latest stages of her career Barty had decided that it was not a shot that suited her, and this stance did not prevent her from winning. Moreover, even Steffi Graf had a similar approach, and the occasions when she used the topspin backhand (in her case, one-handed) were extremely rare.

Simona Halep never managed to raise the level of her net game to the same heights as her groundstrokes. This resulted in tactical sacrifices because a player who was so effective in baseline rallies often had the opportunity to come to the net to finish off the point. However, going against the logic of “tennis basics”, Simona preferred not to, aware that coming to the net would risk compromising everything. This way of approaching rallies was certainly not perfect, but it was the most logical way for her to minimize her volleys’ frailty.

Serena Williams was no longer as fast and effective in defence in the second part of her career as she was in her twenties. This did not prevent her from reaping titles with aggression and relentless pressure, willing to give up scurrying after balls that other players could reach.

Essentially, I believe that what can make a difference is acknowledging one’s physical and technical weaknesses without plunging into a perpetual dissatisfaction that may lead to a sense of guilt. Because a tennis player who steps onto court with these concerns will inevitably be much more vulnerable.

Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that Swiatek should give up on improving her serve today, perhaps even by changing her technical team. After all, we are not discussing a shot of secondary importance. However, since nobody is perfect, we cannot rule out the possibility that in the end she may not succeed in doing so, and in this case, the third scenario would become the only viable path.

We will see how things evolve; time will eventually satisfy our curiosity by answering all these speculations.

Translated by Luca Gori and Massimo Volpati

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Roland Garros 2024: Iga Swiatek Aims To Overcome Naomi Osaka And Danielle Collins In Hat-Trick Bid

Iga Swiatek is the firm favourite in Paris once again as she looks to secure a third consecutive Roland Garros title.

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Iga Swiatek will need to overcome Naomi Osaka and Danielle Collins if she wants to win a third consecutive Roland Garros title.

The world number one is looking for more history in Paris and enters the tournament in confident form having won the Madrid-Rome double.

Swiatek will start her hat-trick bid against a qualifier before potentially facing Naomi Osaka in the second round.

Veronika Kudermetova could await in the third round with former champion Barbora Krejcikova awaiting in the last 16.

Former finalist Marketa Vondrousova or the in-form Danielle Collins complete a tough section of the draw for the three-time champion.

Potentially awaiting Swiatek in the semi-finals is the player she beat in 2022 to win the title in the form of Coco Gauff.

The American starts her campaign against a qualifier with Dayana Yastremska potentially awaiting in the third round.

A tough last 16 clash could await against Beatriz Haddad Maia with Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Garcia and Ons Jabeur all potential quarter-final hurdles.

In the bottom half of the draw, Aryna Sabalenka has been given a very tough draw especially in the third round where Paula Badosa, Yulia Putintseva or Sloane Stephens could be present.

In-form Madison Keys could await in the last 16 while Maria Sakkari is in her quarter of the draw.

Sakkari starts against Varvara Gracheva before potentially facing Victoria Azarenka or Daria Kasatkina in the last 16.

Should Sabalenka get to the semi-finals then Elena Rybakina could await with the Kazakh facing Greet Minnen in her opener.

Former Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber could be Rybakina’s second round opponent.

Elina Svitolina could await in the last 16 but the Ukrainian must get past Karolina Pliskova in her opener.

Finally Alize Cornet’s last ever tournament will start against Australian Open finalist Qinwen Zheng.

Here is the full draw with play starting on Sunday:

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Roland Garros 2024: Rafael Nadal Faces Alexander Zverev In Blockbuster Opening Round

Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev will meet at Roland Garros in the first round with Andy Murray taking on Stan Wawrinka in the opening round.

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Rafael Nadal has been drawn against Rome champion Alexander Zverev in the opening round of Roland Garros.

The 14-time Roland Garros champion will most likely be making his last appearance at the event where he has such a great history at.

It’s been a mixed clay court season for Nadal who built gradual momentum in Madrid but suffered an early exit in Rome to Hubert Hurkacz.

Now the Spaniard has been drawn to take on the champion of Rome, Alexander Zverev, in the opening round.

The match is a repeat of the 2022 semi-final where Zverev broke his ankle losing almost a year of his career.

This contest headlines the second quarter of the draw which also features Karen Khachanov, Holger Rune and Daniil Medvedev.

In the other quarter of the top half of the draw, defending champion Novak Djokovic will begin his Roland Garros campaign against Pierre-Hughes Herbert.

There is also a potential third round clash with either Gael Monfils or Lorenzo Musetti for Djokovic, who is currently in Geneva gaining extra match practice ahead of the second Grand Slam of the season.

The Serb could have a repeat of last year’s final in the quarter-finals with Casper Ruud as the Norwegian begins his campaign against Jakub Mensik.

In the bottom half of the draw Jannik Sinner plays his first tournament since suffering a hip injury in Rome as he takes on Christopher Eubanks in the opening round.

Sinner could face Cameron Norrie in the third round with the Brit taking on Pavel Kotov in his opening round before playing the winner of the battle of the Grand Slam champions between Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.

Murray and Wawrinka will clash for the fourth time at Roland Garros with Wawrinka leading their head-to-head 2-1 in Paris.

This section also includes in-form players such as Hubert Hurkacz, Alejandro Tabilo and Rome finalist Nicolas Jarry.

Finally Carlos Alcaraz will begin his Roland Garros campaign against a qualifier before potentially playing Jack Draper in the second round.

Another exciting clash awaits Alcaraz in the third round in the form of Sebastian Korda with Andrey Rublev or Stefanos Tsitsipas being potential quarter-final opponents.

This is the full draw with Roland Garros beginning on Sunday.

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Caroline Wozniacki’s Father Criticises WTA For Lack Of Help For Mothers On Tour

Caroline Wozniacki was not given a wildcard for Rome or Roland Garros.

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Piotr Wozniacki has labelled the WTA as ‘amateur’ for their treatment of mothers on tour as he claims that Caroline Wozniacki should have had more wildcards.

The former Australian Open champion has played ten events since she announced her comeback last year.

Wozniacki has recovered her ranking to 117 in the world and her comeback has resulted in a fourth round appearance at the US Open as well as a quarter-final result at Indian Wells.

However the Dane has not been successful in gaining wildcards recently with both Rome and Roland Garros not offering Wozniacki one.

It’s a decision that Wozniacki’s father, Piotr, has not been happy with as he explained with Sport.PL, “The WTA believes that it is operating in an amateur fashion in the world of the largest professional women’s sport of all sports in the world. They sign contracts with the players and the players are obliged to do certain things under these contracts. And what do they get? Nothing, really nothing!” Piotr was quoted by tennisuptodate as saying.

“All wild cards, and there were 8 of them, were given to the Italians. I understand promoting their players, but how can you give the right to play in a tournament of this rank to such girls who should not even think that they could play in a Masters yet?

“Caroline was number one in her ranking. She won a Grand Slam tournament, won the Masters, played in almost 60 finals of their tournaments and won 30. So we are talking about a complete tennis player, someone who did a great job, who certainly increased the popularity of tennis, who earned a lot of money herself, but let them earn money. even much more.

“And it turns out that when someone like Caroline Wozniacki comes back as Caroline Wozniacki and family, she is no longer welcome. We can’t even prepare Caroline’s starting plan! We train, we prepare, and it turns out that there is nothing to do.

“This is happening because today in tennis everything is based only on relationships, on acquaintances, and not on clear rules. The thing is that if we know the organizers or tournament directors, we get a chance to play, but if we don’t know someone somewhere, they don’t want us there.

“Naturally, after the maternity break, my daughter had zero points. It takes a lot of time to start from scratch and reach the top, but we would do it patiently, but how can we do it when you don’t let a girl like that work for it? The rules in tennis today are such that there is no longer a mandatory wild card for someone who was once in the top 20, had a long break and came back.

“This card was really helpful for tennis players coming back after having a baby and for those coming back from serious injuries. And now Caroline, Angelique Kerber or Naomi Osaka are dependent only on someone else’s decisions. Since last year, all wild cards are the property of the tournaments, and the WTA washes its hands of them.”

It’s clear the Wozniacki family is disappointed as the Dane could be set to cancel her comeback next year.

However there is optimism that Wozniacki will receive one at Wimbledon as she has had past success on grass courts.

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