As night fell on Rod Laver Arena during the opening day of competition at the Australian Open, not everything was going Iga Swiatek’s way. Four months after Jule Niemeier had forced her to be down a set and a break at the US Open, the young German was once again causing problems with her varied, unorthodox style. Swiatek struggled to find a rhythm, her errors piled up and Niemeier established a 5-3 second-set lead.
Yet under pressure, when she truly needed it, Swiatek pounced. First she navigated a tough hold, then she produced a flawless return game to cast aside the break. Swiatek rolled through the final four games of the match, recovering to defeat Niemeier 6-3, 7-5 and move into the second round. Even when far from at her best, the Pole closed off her first win with a statement. “I knew that I could get my focus up a little bit, the intensity a little bit more. So I did that,” she said, shrugging.
Swiatek’s return to Australia is particularly notable. Last year, the Australian Open proved a defining moment in her progression. She had started the season feeling out her partnership with her new coach Tomasz Wiktorowski and she had not fully bought into her potential on hard courts – she still felt much more comfortable on clay. Ranked only ninth, she reached the semi-final and that set the tone for the rest of the year.
“At the beginning of last year I didn’t have that much confidence that I can also win big titles on hard court because all of them basically happened last season,” she said. “Also before I think the media kind of described me as a clay-court player. Maybe that got into me a little bit. But, yeah, for sure working with Tomas, I don’t know, I just felt like I can be more aggressive on hard court, I don’t have to be the baseline player.”
After a season that included two Grand Slam titles, eight titles overall, a 37-match winning streak and nine months at No 1, she returns to Australia as the heavy favourite to win the title. One of the defining questions of the new season is how she will follow up what was one of the greatest seasons of the 21st century, a challenge Swiatek believes that many underestimate.
“For sure I feel the expectations, that people kind of want to take for granted that I’m going to win those first rounds,” she said. “It’s always not easy. Every match is a different story. You have to really work hard to win. I just feel like they’re taking it for granted a little bit. There’s no reason to do that honestly because I know I had a streak last year, and I was consistent. As I said, every match is a different story, every season is different.”
In the second round, Swiatek will face Camila Osorio and a potential marquee third-round meeting with former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu could follow if they both win. Earlier in the day, Andreescu produced a statement win by comfortably defeating Marie Bouzkova, the 25th seed, 6-2, 6-4. Third seed Jessica Pegula also progressed, beating Jaqueline Cristian 6-0, 6-1.
Emma Raducanu was pleased with how her ankle held up in her first match since suffering an injury in the build-up to the Australian Open, as the 20-year-old British player wasted little time in reaching the second round, dismissing Tamara Korpatsch 6-3 6-2 to set up a showdown with French Open runner-up Coco Gauff.
The Briton said the injury did not play on her mind once she found her groove.
“If anything, it’s not mental, it’s more just like physical and playing, seeing how it is,” Raducanu said, adding that she was looking forward to her match against 18-year-old Gauff.
“I’m very up for it,” she said. “Coco’s obviously done a lot of great things and she’s playing well. I think we’re both good, young players, we’re both coming through. Part of the next generation of tennis, really.
“When she first came at Wimbledon, after that, it took her a little bit to adjust as well, but she definitely found her feet. She’s playing really good tennis and looking really solid right now.
“She’s a great athlete with big weapons.” − Guardian