Back in 2005, the 19-year-old Rafael Nadal won his very first French Open title, beating then world #1 Roger Federer in 4 sets along the way.
Last year (2020), at the same tournament, something similar happened on the WTA: 19-year-old Iga Swiatek beat world #1 Simona Halep 6-1 6-2 en route to winning her first ever Rolland Garros title. Though Iga wasn’t quite there in her first Rolland Garros in 2019, losing to Halep 6-1 6-0 that year, she came roaring back in 2020 and introduced herself as one of the most dominant clay court teenagers we’ve ever seen.
This year, in Rome, she cemented that fact, beating Karolina Pliskova 6-0 6-0 in the Italian Open Final. Yes, you heard that right.
Iga Swiatek didn’t lose a single game, against a player who’d made two consecutive Italian Open finals previously, and had won one of them. Her opponent didn’t even win 15 points.
King and Queen – Rafa and Iga
Whether it’s the forehand, backhand, movement, or attitude, Iga and Rafa have a lot in common. As we typically do here at Fault Tolerant Tennis, we’re primarily going to focus on Iga’s forehand mechanics, but the two clay court phenoms are similar in more ways than just that. Before we get into that, a quick comment on their similar two-handed backhands.
Many players play the two-handed backhand as a mostly flat shot, during which they redirect the ball to a precise location. Iga and Rafa, on the other hand (as well as other girls like Naomi Osaka), elect to play the two-hander similarly to how they play their forehand – they torque their hips around, ending in an open stance, in order to generate enough racket head speed to create both power and spin.
Rotating the hips on the two-handed backhand harnesses the rotational kinetic chain, just like on forehand, and it allows for some phenomenal, high margin, aggressive shot-making. The image on the right should look familiar – this kind of dead-run, sliding, backhand passing shot is exactly the kind of shot we’ve seen Rafa successfully execute a hundred times, and Iga pulls it off beautifully here.
Iga’s Precise Rotation
In order to gain both the viscous spin and the crushing power that Iga has on her strokes, she must rotate precisely. Either under-rotation or over-rotation would make Iga’s level of racket head speed impossible. One of the most beautiful parts of her stroke is just how accurate her rotation is, especially when hitting winners on shorter balls.
As Iga twists forward on her forehand, she twists her hips almost precisely towards her target, and then no farther (until the follow-through). During the abdominal rotation phase, she does the same thing, twisting her chest almost exactly towards her target, and then no farther. By stopping her rotation so precisely, Iga transfers almost 100% of her core’s rotational energy into her arm, which then whips out in front of her and strikes a world class shot.
In The Fault Tolerant Forehand, we discuss under-rotation a lot, because it’s an extremely common problem which destroys the forehand’s fault tolerance. Over-rotation, on the other hand, isn’t quite as bad, but it still has its downsides. The goal of the hips is to generate force, and then transfer that force into the racket. If the hips are still rotating at the time of contact, then they’ve kept some of their energy. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but, again, to create the rotational whip in your stroke, the way Iga does, you need your rotation to stop, so that your arm can take all of that energy and whip the racket through the ball.
Iga, Federer, and Feel
Some players simply have a better feel for how to manipulate their racket through space than others. Roger Federer is the king of this concept. Put him in any situation, however novel, and he’ll be able to manipulate the racket to strike the ball the way he wants to strike it. This athletic understanding can be achieved via natural talent or training, but however it’s achieved, it’s an extremely useful weapon on the court.
Iga has it.
The longer you play and coach, the more you can tell when a player really has a sense of how to the racket works. You can tell by the way they handle novel situations. Bad bounces, drop shot retrievals, awkwardly mis-spaced shots – how well are they able to produce a reasonable result out of those positions? Does it look like all of their training has suddenly broken down because the situation is unfamiliar, or are you watching a player who, in lieu of practicing hyper-specific shots and hyper-specific movement patterns, has instead simply mastered the use of their racket.
It’s truly a pleasure to watch Iga sprint up to an exceptionally short ball, while holding her racket in the continental grip, and wait, and wait, and wait until her opponent finally guesses, and then casually chip a winner in the other direction. As a fan, watching players like Iga (and, of course, Roger Federer) is really what gets me excited. Seeing the brilliant racket control, athleticism, and creativity on display always re-ignites my passion for the game.
The Rafa-Style Follow-Through
One of the clues that a player has this built-in athletic sense of how to manipulate their racket is that they sometimes employ the Rafa-Style follow-through on the forehand: following through above their head rather than around their body. At some point in the near future, I’ll write an entire article about this follow-through, but I’ll briefly address it here, since it’s one of Iga’s main weapons.
Essentially, this follow-through is the result of a slightly different forward swing. It’s a forward swing during which you employ more of a volitional up vector through the hitting zone. It allows you to catch the ball later while still creating correct contact, and it can also help generate topspin when the ball is caught too close to the body.
A player who implements this follow-through is not focusing on the follow-through itself. Not at all. Instead, they are focusing on contact. The player has cultivated an understanding of the contact they’re trying to create, and out of awkward situations, like when the ball is too close or when catching it late, the natural result is that the racket follows through over the head.
This happens almost accidentally. Once you develop your understanding of contact, you’ll never have to think about which follow-through you’re going to use. You’ll occasionally, automatically follow through over your head, because you’re attempting to create a certain kind of contact, and your brain has realized that, from your current position, a more vertical swing path is necessary to accomplish that goal.
Iga Proves Tennis is Surprisingly Egalitarian
Tennis is a technique driven sport. Now, obviously, athleticism and natural explosiveness do play a huge roll in success, but they play far less of a role than they do in lots of other mainstream sports, like football (soccer). This makes tennis quite egalitarian. Female tennis stars, like the Queen of Clay Iga Swiatek, aren’t merely good female players, rather, they’re simply really good tennis players, in a vacuum. That’s true more in tennis than it is in almost any other sport.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s a famous event that went viral (you can imagine why) about the US Women’s soccer team losing a scrimmage to a U15 boys team 2-5. Now, sure, it was an informal scrimmage, but it’s still interesting it wasn’t a trivial blowout for the girls. In tennis, we don’t get results like this. We have a sex independent ranking system in our sport called “UTR,” which indicates that the top female players would absolutely destroy any U14 boys, and only the absolute best of the U16 boys would even be competitive with them, still likely losing.
This, I think, is why women’s tennis is so compelling. As sports fans, all we want to see is feats of athletic brilliance take place in the arena. Iga Swiatek gives us that. When you watch the Queen of Clay, it feels like you’re watching Rafa, just a female version of Rafa. The WTA, fundamentally, puts out the same product that the ATP puts out, and the exceptional talent of players like Iga Swiatek is the reason why.