Iga Świątek triumphed at the Miami Open on Saturday, with no ambiguities. She beat Naomi Osaka decisively, after plowing through six rounds as if she were cleaning house. The only match when an opponent won more than three games in a set was the semi-final, when Jessica Pegula, a favorite of sports-mad Buffalo, New York, managed to win five.
Miss Świątek’s fearsome crosscourt groundstrokes into the corners left one rival after another wrongfooted and with a bemused look. She overcame a tendency to double-fault and kept the pressure on even with her second serves, while consistently sending big return-of-serves from both sides to grab the initiative.
Inevitably, the question arises whether Miss Świątek, at 20 and with one major already (French Open, 2020), will dominate the sport in the way other greats have, Steffi Graff, for instance, or Venus and Serena Williams, all three of whom took turns owning this tournament (Serena, eight times).
Of course, it is much too soon to tell. Iga Świątek has the strokes, the grit, the smarts. She has the power. Meeting another power-hitter in the final, Naomi Osaka, who played through five rounds with no less intensity and confidence as did Miss Świątek, she raised her level to take a competitive first set, 7-5. However, Miss Osaka wilted in the second set and let herself get bageled, 6-0. So it is not clear yet which of the two might come closer to the women’s power game that the Misses Williamses invented (sort of), with its huge returns of serves (not to mention serves), running volley winners, never-quit comebacks, and sheer talent.
Talent — it is real, but it is either raw or honed. You hone it, weeks and months and years of hitting against the wall; and someone makes you hone it — a teacher, a coach, perchance a parent. This is not a nod to gender confusion mania, but to keep in mind that not infrequently, including such outstanding examples as Andy Murray and Jimmy Connors, the parent in question is the mother (and grandmother).
There are coaches and coaches, and sometimes they work out and sometimes they no longer do, which is different from not working out at all; Miss Świątek reportedly changed coaches lately and, no question, she plays with more aggression and confidence and court sensitivity — your feet, your opponent’s, the ball’s spin, the lines — than a year or two ago. How much does this sort of thing depend on a coach, or on your own work, who knows. A recent movie that seeks some sort of answer to this is King Richard, about Venus and Serena Williams’ first teacher and coach.
It is a pretty good film, and the performance by Will Smith as the father determined to make his girls not only champions, but the best of the best, is solid. You never learn what exactly is driving him, other than his belief in his girls’ talent and their learning ability. Maybe that is all we can know about him — a kind of obsession, a faith, and a work ethic.
Still, as long as we are at the level of very high standards we might compare King Richard to Hoosiers. This is also concerned with a driven coach who wants to make his charges the best, if only once. What makes this film so memorable, however, is its immersion in the southern Indiana of the early 1950s. No other film, Mr. Pleszczynski once said to me in conversation, evokes that time and place as does Hoosiers.
You cannot explain a driven coach or father, perhaps, but if you situate him with just the right tone and color in his time and place, you make your audience know him. You know what Richard Williams wants, and it is shown very well indeed by Mr. Smith. I am not sure, though, you know Richard Williams the way you come to know Coach Norman Dale, as played by Gene Hackman.
Well, this is neither here nor there — but is it? How we connect to sports, and how they are managed — or mismanaged — is not without relation to how we manage other things — maybe all other things — in our private lives and in society. In both these films, you see the personal as well as institutional difficulties the hero of the story must confront. They are both well worth watching for this.
The defending women’s champion at Miami, Ashleigh Barty, retired a few earlier less than two months after winning the Australian Open. She will be missed, for her good nature and also for her game, so different from the one played by most other players now, including this year’s finalists. But against this loss, consider the huge lesson in human grace she gave. At 25, she was ranked No. 1 and would have stayed there, or near there, for many years, earning huge amounts of money and gaining more fame than even what she now has as the best-loved athlete in Australia since the 1970s and the glory days of Evonne Goolagong, who had succeeded Margaret Court as the country’s top woman player. Miss Barty has other things she wants to do, she said without pretension, and she wants to begin doing them, having done what she set out to prove she could do in tennis.
Iga Świątek now takes her place at No. 1, having won at Indian Wells the fortnight before Miami. She thus made a Sunshine Double, winning the only two masters tournaments that are played in succession and are just below the majors in prestige and purses. It is a feat only three other women have accomplished, Steffi Graff (twice), Kim Clijsters, and Victoria Azarenka. Aggressive competitiveness may be her new style, but she remains a laid-back cheerful young lady, about to turn 21, off the court, which is nice to notice.
Without beating down on it, she sends simple but clear messages of support to Ukraine, where at least two recently retired tennis men, Serhiy Stakhovsky and Alexandr Dolgopolov, have taken up arms to defend their homeland. Andriy Medvedev, who is about ten years older than they, is also in the fight.
Also on Saturday, Iga Świątek’s compatriot Hubert Hurkacz reached the semis and lost to the eventual winner, the phenomenal 18-year old from Murcia, Spain, Carlos Alcaraz. Mr. Hurkacz was the defending champ on the men’s side, and he made up for the loss, which was by the narrowest of margins, two tiebreaks that went to 7-5, by winning the men’s doubles with American John Isner, himself the 2018 singles champion. It was a pretty good day for Polish tennis, or if you prefer, for tennis players — and the men and women who teach and motivate them.