For Both Swiatek and Nadal, Staying ‘In the Moment’ at French Open Was Key

A French Open women’s champion emerging. A French Open men’s champion enduring.

That was the final weekend in a nutshell at Roland Garros this year.

But while the October dates for the tournament were unprecedented, the nutshell was not.

Rafael Nadal has become a landmark in Paris: visit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, watch Nadal win yet another title near the Bois de Boulogne.

He claimed his 13th on Sunday with an exclamation point, romping past Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked player, while yielding just seven games across three sets.

On Saturday, the Polish teenager Iga Swiatek became the latest breakthrough champion in the women’s game.

The list grows and grows at nearly the same pace as Nadal’s résumé. While he is a constant for the men, churn is the constant for the women, who have had nine new Grand Slam singles champions in the past four seasons and four straight first-time winners in Paris: with Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty before Swiatek.

The contrast in the sport’s divisions is extreme, but it is still possible to see a few commonalities between Swiatek and Nadal — even though Swiatek’s career is just beginning. Both, for example, bulldozed through their draws without dropping a set across seven matches.

Swiatek is 19, the same age Nadal was when he won his first French Open in 2005. She hits with the same heavy topspin and a similar Western grip on her forehand, albeit with her right hand versus Nadal’s left.

But the thickest common thread is in their mental approach. Both, with very different methods, were exquisitely grounded in the moment: playing each point in isolation, with gusto and seemingly little consideration of the wider implications.

In tennis, as in many sports, that is an elusive and delightful place to be, and it has been one of Nadal’s trademarks since he emerged from Spain in the early 2000s.

“What I think Iga can definitely pick up from Rafa is how he’s composed between the points and how he’s always focused on just this one particular next point,” said Daria Abramowicz, the sports psychologist who was part of Swiatek’s team in Paris. She added: “She obviously has seen this a lot, but it’s not always the same thing to see it and understand it as it is to be able to deal with it.”

In Paris, the unseeded Swiatek clearly managed it beautifully: speaking softly to herself, eyes closed, on changeovers and hitting winner after clean winner, eyes wide open, on the clay.

“We have our own set of exercises she’s doing on changeovers,” Abramowicz said. “Sometimes those are breathing techniques. Sometimes this is visualization. Sometimes this is just inner dialogue. But it’s a lot, and she’s picking what she needs at the moment, so basically, it requires her to be very aware of what’s going on during the match.”

Even in her first Grand Slam final, Swiatek held firm, defeating Sofia Kenin, the fourth seed, 6-4, 6-1.

“It’s hard with so much pressure, but I just did everything I’ve done in the previous rounds,” Swiatek said. “I focused on technique and tactics. I tried to get rid of expectations, just play one ball after another. I didn’t really care if I’m going to lose or win.”

That is an acquired trait: Last year, when she lost to Halep at Roland Garros in less than an hour, Swiatek cared so much that she could barely put a ball in the court. This year, she routed Halep on her way to the title.

“Really, I think the main key was just keeping my expectations low,” Swiatek said.

Nadal has never worked with a sports psychologist, but he has done a fine job of managing expectations. Search his interviews through the years for traces of superiority or fait accompli.

Good luck.

His modesty manifests as pessimism, which has sometimes seemed illogical — even disingenuous. But it has worked for him in a sport where each match is a fresh chance for a superstar to make some underdog’s day.

Nadal has never been interested in resting on his laurels.

He is, make no mistake, a fabulously talented player, capable of generating power and precision from just about anywhere on the court and of finding “solutions” — to use one of his favorite words — to tactical conundrums.

It is the unlikely combination of it all — supreme athletic gifts, inner drive and inner calm — that add up to 13 French Open titles and 20 Grand Slam titles.

For now, Swiatek must learn to cope with just one, which could be quite a challenge considering that she is Poland’s first Grand Slam singles champion.

Strolling through Warsaw unnoticed will now be more difficult, but she is clearly bright and clearly drawn to developing a structure and skills that are built to last.

Abramowicz, a former competitive sailor who has worked with athletes in many sports, believes one of the reasons it is so hard for tennis players to stay “in the moment” is because the moment is so often interrupted.

“You have pauses between the point, pauses between the sets and then obviously you have pauses between the matches,” she said. “Sometimes the biggest and most challenging work from the mental point of view is doing the best you can during these pauses.”

Now Swiatek must manage the pause before she returns to Grand Slam competition at the Australian Open in January.

It is hard to see the future clearly. Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open shortly after turning 20 but has since fallen out of the top 10. Bianca Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open at 19 in only her fourth major appearance but has barely played a tournament since then because of injuries and the pandemic hiatus.

Swiatek appears to have the skills to prosper with a blend of power, touch and court coverage. It has never been a fluke when someone wins a French Open in such dominant fashion. She lost just 28 games, putting her in elite company with the likes of Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.

But it would have been instructive to see how Swiatek would have reacted to more scoreboard pressure. Is she the next great player? Or just the latest to get hot at the right time, considering that Barty and Naomi Osaka were both absent and Williams withdrew after one round?

“So tough to tell,” said Sven Groeneveld, who coached two French Open women’s champions: Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova. “Tennis-wise, Swiatek has a great all-around game, but there will be moments when other players will start to know her better. She should be a solid top-10 player for the next five years. Her edge is that she does have a sports psychologist, which is a good thing to have with such a big, life-changing moment.”

Swiatek is hardly blazing a trail. “The Inner Game of Tennis,” Timothy Gallwey’s classic book about vanquishing self-doubt, was published in 1974. But Swiatek’s desire to hire a sports psychologist this early on and her openness to speaking about it publicly are part of a generational shift.

In a women’s game packed with emerging stars, it is also a way to get an edge.

“I can see the difference when I’m mentally, like prepared, and I’m ready to handle the stress, the pressure. I can see the difference where I can’t,” Swiatek said. “That’s why I’m losing in the first round and sometimes I can win a tournament.”

She and Abramowicz both use the same word to describe their goal for her game: “consistency.”

That has been so elusive for recent women’s champions at Roland Garros. And inescapable for Nadal.

While Nadal stays in the moment, any new arrival looking up (and up) at his body of work is attempting the equivalent of craning one’s neck at the sky during the Renaissance and considering the possibility of a moonwalk.

Not impossible in the long run but surely not possible without some sort of advance in human evolution.


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