Swiatek Finding Right Balance On, Off The Court

Iga Swiatek (photo: Roland Garros video)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 1, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The second day of the Roland Garros fortnight started with defending champion Iga Swiatek of Poland celebrating her 20th birthday by playing her best friend, Kaja Juvan of Slovenia, and winning 6-0, 7-5. From there, a couple of former French Open champions, 2016 winner Garbiñe Muguruza and 2017 titlist Jelena Ostapenko, were unceremoniously ousted, Roger Federer made a successful return to the French Open, and a few hours later, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams played the inaugural night-session match at Roland Garros in a virtually empty Court Philippe-Chatrier that was bereft of the same energy and excitement that the Swiss master had experienced only a few hours earlier.

By the end of the day, Swiatek’s opening-round defense of her first major title had been pushed aside by the sudden withdrawal of World No. 2 Naomi Osaka (see below). However, it’s worth coming back to Swiatek, because this bright and engaging, young Polish woman, who is both grounded and surrounded by a good and supportive team, spoke volumes during her press conference that speaks well of her.

• On beginning her title defense: “You never know what’s going to happen when you’re coming out on a court as a defending champion. I’ve never even in a situation like that. I’m really glad I could handle that pretty well and just play tennis, play a normal match without having in the back of my mind that I’m defending the title.”

• On playing against Juvan, her best friend: “It’s never easy … you just try to block this friendship for two hours, just focus on the game. I think I’m doing that pretty well. It’s nice to have that skill. … When you are on court, you can’t have, like, thoughts that you are going to make your game softer.”

• On working with her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, on her relationship with the media: “I’ve never felt like I need to work on that because that is pretty natural for me. Since I was even like, 13 and 14, we had some Polish media that was always interested, that always wanted to talk with me.

“Step by step I was getting more and more experience and I was kind of learning how to have a good relationship with the media. Also, do it that way, it is not bothering me. I think the process should be the same for every tennis player because when you are … top three in your country as a junior, there’s going to be probably some expectations from the outside, and you’re just learning how to do it.

“But of course, it’s much, much different when you suddenly get a success. It’s just important to find the balance. We are actually working on that, find a balance to sometimes just go find and not have too many factors coming in. Sometimes, enjoy little things and not thing about expectations, or, yeah, other obligations.

“In my opinion, just having a good relationship [with the] media, it can help you. If I’m going to have something, I’m going to tell you that I’m not comfortable talking with that. If we’re going to treat each other with mutual respect, I think everybody can benefit from that.”

Bottom line for Swiatek on the court: “Even though I have, like, big confidence and I’m feeling really good, we still have to remember that every match has a different story and many things can happen on court. You just have to be careful all the time, not let yourself think that you’re better or something because everybody is equal on court. It doesn’t really matter what your ranking is or if you won the last tournament because it’s tennis – and it’s pretty unpredictable.”

Osaka says she will ‘take some time away from the court’

Naomi Osaka‘s first-round win over Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, 6-4, 7-6 (4), on Sunday seems like such a distant memory. Yet, just a day after opening play on Court Philippe-Chatrier, then being fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory post-match press conference – and facing the possibility of further penalties as she advanced – the World No. 2 from Japan said Monday that she would withdraw from the French Open. Her announcement was made just before 8 p.m. Paris time.

Osaka’s missive, made on her social media platforms in which she wrote that she had suffered from bouts of depression since 2018, came amid a dispute about post-match news conferences. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can go back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” the 23-year-old winner of four major titles – all on hard courts and none on clay – wrote.

Following Osaka’s withdrawal, Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, said in a statement, “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and quickest possible recover, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year.”

Last week, Osaka announced that she would forgo news conferences during the French Open because of “mental health” – as she termed it.

As someone who has attended many of Osaka’s press conferences since the restart of tennis last August, I can personally attest they are often full of charm and geniality mixed with humor and self-deprecation – all wonderful qualities – coming directly from the introverted, soft-spoken Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, and raised in the United States. Her press conference answers are always thoughtful and sometimes, inquisitive – occasionally, they are accented with a touch of laughter. I have had the opportunity to ask questions of Osaka, both after wins and losses. She always been honest in answering my questions – especially when I was recognized first by the moderator after she lost to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open and asked her what she could learn from the loss, and she responded:

“I’m not really sure right now. I mean, I knew that going the match we had played a couple of times. So, I knew she’s a really big fighter. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I’m not really sure because I felt like I haven’t been playing well this whole tournament, like I couldn’t find a groove. So, mentally it’s really hard for me to – I don’t know – play against really high quality players with what I feel is low quality tennis. Yeah, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to learn today.”

I would have never guessed that Osaka, who has used her variety of media platforms to speak out on many different social issues including Black Lives Matters, has suffered from mental anxiety.

After Osaka’s announcement, respected tennis writers Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker shared a co-bylined story for Tennis.com that explored the subject of “Where does tennis go after here?” Both were in agreement that the situation could have been handled better on both sides.

Other reaction ranged from shock to concern for Osaka as a human being – and not just as a tennis star.

During her press conference following her first-round win Monday night, Serena Williams, who lost the 2018 US Open final to Osaka, was asked her feelings and thoughts about l’affaire Osaka: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.

“We have different personalities, and people are different. .Not everyone is the same. I’m thick [skinned]. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.

“You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best that she can.”

Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova, who is working as an analyst for Tennis Channel and commented on Osaka’s first-round match on Sunday at Roland Garros, wrote on Twitter: “I am so said about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok. As athletes, we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are all pulling for you!”

Serena Williams: It’s gotta be the shoes!

In a post-match interview Serena Williams called her Nike shoes “an art piece,” and explained that the artwork was inspired by one of her favorite LPs: Green Day’s Dookie.

Although much of of the text on her kicks are in English, there’s a particular statement in French – and in all capital letters – that’s attention grabbing. It says: JE NE M’ARRÊTERAI JAMAIS. It translates as: “I will never stop.”

The teen titans of Roland Garros

Marta Kostyuk, Lorenzo Musetti, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz

What they’re saying

Roger Federer on his current thinking about the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympic Games: “I feel two ways. I would love to play. I wish things were better around the world that we wouldn’t even have to debate the thought of is it going to happen? Am I going to play or not? My wish and hope and dream is that I can play it. But it needs to make sense for me, my team, my family, my country.

“I’m still waiting to see how things are going to develop the next couple fo weeks and months.”

What they’re tweeting

Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis correspondent, on Serena Williams:

Monday’s Roland Garros results

Tuesday’s Roland Garros Show Courts Order of Play