MELBOURNE, Australia — In October, a teenager from Poland, Iga Swiatek, stunned the tennis world when she came out of nowhere to win the French Open.
She was ranked No. 54 heading into the tournament yet won the singles championship without losing a set in any of her seven matches. The run instantly made her one of the top young stars in tennis, a celebrity in Poland and a favorite to play deep into the Australian Open, which begins Monday.
Swiatek’s unusual breakout — and whatever may follow for the 19-year-old — has come in part because of her unusual strategy of allowing a mental health and psychology coach to play a central role in her training since very early in her career.
The coach, Daria Abramowicz, 33, is a former competitive sailor who has spent much of the past decade trying to bring mental health and psychology to the fore in sports in Poland. She has been a constant presence at Swiatek’s matches since 2019 and can often be seen on the court during her practices, watching closely with her arms crossed, trying to peer into Swiatek’s mind.
They talk off the court for hours on end about Swiatek’s fears and her dreams. They work to deepen Swiatek’s relationships with relatives and friends, the people who can provide emotional stability — “the human anchor,” Abramowicz calls it.
During practice, Swiatek sometimes wears medical instruments that measure her stress level by monitoring the activity of her heart and brain. Ahead of the Australian Open, she watched and reflected on a documentary about Princess Diana to better understand the pitfalls of sudden fame. On Saturday afternoon, two days before her opening match in Melbourne, she went to the beach.
“My life changed,” Swiatek, 19, said recently, answering questions from the Melbourne hotel room where she had spent 19 hours each day for two weeks during the limited quarantine required of players because of the coronavirus pandemic. “There is a little bit more pressure.”
Many top tennis players consult with mental coaches, but Abramowicz works with Swiatek much more frequently than usual for the sport. Abramowicz also takes a counterintuitive approach of prioritizing gratitude, human relationships and personal growth as a path to winning.
At this level, every player has beautiful strokes and athleticism. What often separates the merely great tennis player from the champion, or a one-time Grand Slam champion from a dominating repeat winner, is having the fortitude to prevail on those few key points on which a match turns.
“We talk a lot about positive and destructive passions,” Abramowicz said in an interview. “Perfectionism is not so helpful, so we tried to create positive passion, determination and grit. You embrace your potential in pursuit of excellence. You go for the best, but at the end of the day you are human and you have other aspects to your life, and it doesn’t mean when you lose your match you are less worthy as a human being.”
Abramowicz said that self-confidence and close relationships built on trust were crucial to supporting attributes like motivation, stress management and communication that drive athletic success.
“It is impossible to become a champion when you don’t have a fundamental joy and your needs fulfilled and satisfied as a human being,” Abramowicz said.
That may be debatable. Tennis, like other sports, has had plenty of champions who were miserable at times, even when they were on top. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who are now married to each other, and more recently Victoria Azarenka, have had plenty of success during unhappy periods in their personal lives. That said, Abramowicz has pushed Swiatek to embrace the idea that she can achieve lasting success far more easily and certainly more enjoyably if she approaches tennis not as life itself but as one part of it.
“It is important to have peace so you can focus on working,” Swiatek said. “It is not only true for tennis players but for any person who wants to succeed and is doing extraordinary things.”
The tennis court is like the sea.
Abramowicz’s journey to Team Swiatek began 15 years ago, when Abramowicz was an 18-year-old rising prospect in Poland’s national sailing program. After a national regatta, Abramowicz fell 10 feet from a trailer while packing a sailboat, shattering her left wrist.
After the accident, she could no longer sail competitively and felt empty and alone. But two weeks later, a coach asked if she might serve as an unofficial coach at a regatta in Italy because she had sailed at the venue before..
“It lifted me up and showed me the new path,” Abramowicz said.
She continued to coach as she studied sports and psychology. As her knowledge deepened, she created a website to write about mental health in sports.
By the time Abramowicz earned a postgraduate degree in psychology in 2016, she had a growing reputation in sports in Poland because of her push for athletes to be more open about their mental needs. Then in February 2019, a member of Swiatek’s management team called to ask if she would be interested in working with a still maturing young tennis player with seemingly limitless potential. Swiatek can mash her groundstrokes and execute soft drop volleys off passing shots rocketed her way, but at times she struggled mentally during matches.
The pairing was a gamble. What might a sailor know about the rigors of elite tennis? Abramowicz said the two pursuits were strikingly similar.
A competitive sailor has to sense the changing conditions of the wind, to see the puffs of water during a race, just as a tennis player must absorb and adjust to the rhythms of a match. During tennis matches and solo sailing races, there is no team to rely on.
If you become exhausted or flustered, it is all on you.
After the call from Swiatek’s management team, Abramowicz flew to Budapest to watch her next match. As she watched, she saw a competitive fire in Swiatek that she had rarely seen in a young athlete.
Afterward, Swiatek told her she was flattered that Abramowicz had come all the way to Hungary to see her play. She knew little about sports psychology beyond the notion that it might make her a better player.
Swiatek uses stress tests and sudoku puzzles.
Sometimes, before Swiatek takes the court for practices, Abramowicz attaches a heart rate variability sensor to her to measure the tension Swiatek is experiencing during high-stress moments. Other times, she has Swiatek strap on a device that measures brain waive oscillation to detect stress.
The goal is to use every tool available to train Swiatek’s mind to manage the adrenaline and pressure of a match. At the 2020 Australian Open, Abramowicz noticed how Swiatek became both calmer and more locked in if she spent the hours before her matches working on homework, especially math.
Swiatek graduated from high school last year and does not have homework anymore. So Abramowicz now has her work on crossword puzzles or sudokus as a cognitive warm-up. Other top players often use the same downtime to listen to music or binge-watch television shows.
The approach is similar to that of another athlete whom Abramowicz has challenged Swiatek to emulate in many ways: the champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who often does word searches before her races to relax and focus her brain. Swiatek tries to watch all of Shiffrin’s races. Abramowicz points to Shiffrin, who became a world champion at 17 and is a huge star in Europe, as a model for how to manage success and expectations without letting fame spiral out of control.
Consider this: A year ago, over dinner at the Australian Open, Swiatek told Naomi Osaka, the three-time Grand Slam champion, that she was considering going to college instead of playing professional tennis.
“I was telling her she’s really good, and I think she’s going to do really well, so maybe don’t try to divert your energy to college just yet,” Osaka recalled last week.
After her championship, the work shifted.
Through her work with Abramowicz, Swiatek has been changing from a player motivated solely by results — a common trait, especially among young players — into someone who, as she put it, can “be happy even when you are not winning.”
That goal morphs over time.
As Swiatek played match point at the French Open against Sofia Kenin, Abramowicz tried to figure out where to shift their focus. Ahead of the Australian Open, Abramowicz and Swiatek have been working on managing life as a favorite and an international star.
“We have prepared for success,” Abramowicz said.
Last week, Swiatek competed in her first tournament since October. Given the layoff, she tried before the tournament to put every expectation for winning out of her mind.
“I won against some of the great players,” Swiatek said Saturday. “That can really, like, mess with the head sometimes.”
Showing the rust, she needed three sets to defeat Kaja Juvan, a 20-year-old Slovenian, and then lost decisively, 6-4, 6-2, to Ekaterina Alexandrova, the veteran Russian.
Now comes the next Grand Slam. Much of Poland is watching closely. As always, Abramowicz will be, too.