Mind Games at the U.S. Open Women’s Final

Twenty years ago, when Daria Abramowicz was a young competitive sailor in Poland, she had the sense that her training was missing something. When all was well—when she was feeling unencumbered—she could read the puffs and lulls of the wind, adjust to the waves and wakes, and use her strength to guide her boat in changeable weather. But under stress her body would tense, and her mind would falter. She didn’t have tools to deal with her own emotions. She knew it, and “wanted to do something about it,” but her coach was unable to help her, she told Ben Rothenberg, for a profile in Racquet magazine. Then, when she was eighteen, she shattered her wrist in a fall, and turned from sailing to coaching, and then to psychology. She became increasingly convinced that there was a connection between performance and mental health, and that many athletes, like herself, had urgent and unmet needs.

In February, 2019, she got a call regarding a young Polish tennis prodigy, Iga Świątek, who had concussive ground strokes and unusual agility, but a sometimes shaky psyche. Abramowicz went to Budapest and watched her play. Świątek was only a teen-ager, but she had great self-awareness, and she understood that Abramowicz could help her. Soon Abramowicz was flying with her to tournaments. They had lunch every day, talking about not only tennis but also the rest of life. Abramowicz became a constant presence at Świątek’s practice sessions and matches. She was there in the player’s box, in 2020, when Świątek, as an unseeded player, romped through the draw to win the French Open title, and there at the Olympics, in 2021, when Świątek sat on the bench in tears after a loss. She was there early this spring, when Świątek inherited the No. 1 ranking after Ashleigh Barty’s retirement, and then backed it up with a thirty-seven-match win streak, including a second Grand Slam title. And she was there, too, when the streak skidded to a halt this summer, and Świątek began to struggle, losing early at Wimbledon, Toronto, Cincinnati. The mind cannot be fixed, after all, like the technique of a forehand. Pressure doesn’t go away. Stress can only be managed.

Then came the start of the U.S. Open. Świątek disliked the balls that were used by the women—lighter than the ones used by the men, they tended to fly on her. She seemed, too, a little unused to the bright lights of New York, and the city’s unruly energy. But the pressure on the No. 1 seed was lessened, of course, by the tournament’s dominant story line: the swan song of Serena Williams. Świątek, who never had the chance to play Williams, succeeded, finally, in finding the courage to say hello, and get a selfie. She survived the early rounds, somehow, without playing her best—a fact that actually gave her courage. She focussed “logically” on what she could change, she said, and adjusted her play accordingly. She did tennis puzzles on changeovers to focus herself. Off the court, she read Brené Brown and Ian McEwan, and tried not to let her emotions take over, and managed her expectations. She wasn’t as at ease on hard courts as she was on clay, she admitted, but was philosophical about her discomfort. “Maybe I’m the kind of person who is never going to trust myself. I don’t care, actually,” she said. “It’s not like it’s something negative for me. For sure, having doubts is not nice, but I also find it pretty motivating to actually, you know, try to get better and try to find new skills to get as close to the trust as possible.” Finally, some of her best play began to surface in the semifinals, against Aryna Sabalenka. Her return game—perhaps the best on tour—let her apply pressure even against a such big hitter as Sabalenka. She streaked to backhands on the run, sliding and slinging the ball out of corners, and redirected Sabalenka’s powerful shots with precision. After splitting the first two sets, she ran away with the third.

At the start of the final, against Ons Jabeur, Świątek maintained her high level. In the first set, she made ninety per cent of her first serves—and was somehow even more successful with her returns. Jabeur managed to get about half her first serves in, and won the point after only two of them. Świątek was playing the aggressor, hitting a deep ball that Jabeur, arguably the sport’s most creative and ingenious player—a genius not only for her touch and slice but for her guile—could do little with. Świątek took the first set, 6–2, in just thirty minutes, and raced out to a 3–0 lead in the second.

Then, though, the weather seemed to change. The crowd, perhaps hoping for a more competitive match, started pulling more vocally for Jabeur. Against tennis’s code, there were whistles when Świątek tried to serve. Jabeur, who had appeared overwhelmed at the start of the match, seemed to ground herself. Her first service percentage rose. Świątek’s dropped. Jabeur’s forehand got more aggressive, as Świątek’s started to break down. Jabeur broke back, levelled the set, and pushed it to a tiebreak.

Jabeur is known as a fighter. She’d had the best year on tour, after Świątek, by a wide margin. After the match, win or lose, she was set to become the No. 2 player in the world. In July, she had made the Wimbledon final. The pressure, then, had been overwhelming, but she was steadier now, she said before the match. Like Świątek, she’d had a difficult hard-court season after Wimbledon, but she came into the match after a peak performance, dominating Caroline Garcia, the summer’s hottest player, in the semifinals. She believed that she could win the title, or at least said so. “You know me,” she said. “I have to say things out loud and kind of manifest them in my way.”

Like Świątek, she began working with a sports psychologist, who sometimes travelled with her. Like Świątek, for all her physical gifts and strategic prowess, she talked about the game as if it were primarily a mental challenge. But the pressure on Jabeur was a different sort. She is a trailblazer, and proud of it—the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final. Growing up in a small town in Tunisia, she had difficulty finding a court to practice on, often resorting to ones for tourists at hotels. Sometimes she would go to the beach and draw a court in the sand. She had become known as a player with gifted hands and good power, but she had struggled with injuries, and only in recent years had she broken into the Top Ten. She had begun to use her unusual game to disrupt her opponents’ rhythm and impose herself. As she succeeded, she said, her sense of responsibility grew.

When she practiced in Tunisia now, young girls would come to watch. She inspired them. Afterward, they would come up to talk with her. “Usually they want to [know] how I manage stress on the court,” she said at a press conference, after the third round, sounding not unlike the opponent she would face in the final. “That’s usually the question. My advice is, just, You have to accept it. You’re going to be stressed anyway. Part of the process is to accept that you are stressed. Try to breathe, start to take each point at a time. It’s O.K. to cry, because usually they cry. It’s fine, you know.”

You could sense the stress in both players as the second set went to a tiebreak—Jabeur charting back, Świątek holding on. The unforced errors piled up—Świątek had twenty-two in the second set, after only eight in the first, whereas Jabeur had twenty-five. At 5–5 in the tiebreak, Jabeur hit a loose rally backhand into the net to go down championship point. Świątek threw up a toss, and then let it drop. She hit a first serve so long it barely made it inside the baseline. She spun her second in, and, finally, fell to the ground when Jabeur sailed a forehand long. During the trophy ceremony afterward, Jabeur struggled to hold back her tears.

The focal point of the tournament has been Serena Williams’s evolution, as she put it in an essay in Vogue, away from the sport. But this U.S. Open was one more reminder that the sport is evolving, too—and not just because of the physicality, creativity, and agility that being a top player now requires. A new generation of young players has been open about the mental difficulties of the game in a way that Williams never has been. Perhaps her mental makeup is different, or perhaps, at least early in her career, she was never allowed to be. Players such as Świątek, Jabeur, Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, and others have been frank about the pressure—what it feels like, but what they can do about it, and with it, too. ♦

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