PARIS — Growing up in Warsaw, Iga Swiatek watched Rafael Nadal play tennis on television, amazed and transfixed. She was captivated by his style, the verve with which he played — mostly that fabulous, spinning forehand.

But nothing prepared her for the moment in 2016 when she first saw him in person at Roland Garros, hitting balls at the 11-court Jean-Bouin practice facility.

“I remember he looked much bigger than on TV live,” Swiatek said in Rome. “I just watched him practice. I kind of wanted to take something from it.”

Swiatek was playing her first junior Grand Slam and would go on to reach the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles. Nadal, suffering from torn tendons in his left wrist, withdrew before his third-round match.

“I was pretty sad that I had no one to cheer for,” Swiatek said.

Still, she did indeed take something from her first live Rafa experience — a whole lot, as it turned out.

They are separated by 15 years, but Nadal and Swiatek are mirror images (from the left and right sides) in so many ways. Appropriately, they both have birthdays that fall during the Roland Garros fortnight. And clay, which slows things down and is physically demanding, is their favorite surface.

As a young tennis player, there were only two notable Polish role models for Swiatek: Agnieszka Radwanska (career-high No.2) and earlier Wojciech Fibak, who reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in 1980. Into that void vaulted Nadal. Swiatek adopted a number of his mannerisms and, ultimately, some of the success that came with them. Swiatek often sprints out to her place behind the baseline like a certain Spanish champion. And then there are the fist pumps and that relentless, almost feral intensity.

“It’s good to look at his forehand as an example, how he’s using this spin to make a difference,” Swiatek said. “Also his backhand is pretty flat. I think we have many similarities in that case.

“Overall, I’m his fan more because of how he behaves. This is something that I try to look up to more.”

As time has gone on, Swiatek has embraced Nadal’s style and substance on and off the court — sportsmanship, humility, kindness and generosity.

The coming tournament promises to be a bittersweet experience for both of them. Nadal, just shy of 38, hasn’t committed yet, but is expected to compete in Paris for what may well be the last time. He’s won 14 titles there, by far the most by any single player at a single Grand Slam. His record at Roland Garros: 112-3.

Nadal won his first in 2005, only two days after his 19th birthday, and his fourth just after his 22nd.

Swiatek, also aged 19, won her first in 2020, when the worldwide pandemic pushed the competition to the fall. Her record at Roland Garros is a sterling 28-2. If she wins here as favored, it would come eight days after her 23rd birthday. That would be four titles in five years.

It’s early in the curve — and wildly unfair to compare anyone to Nadal, but … Swiatek is tracking a similarly unfathomable course in Paris.

The game’s most feared shot

Look at the picture at the top of the story: Swiatek is defying gravity, more than three feet off the ground in a prematch jumping ritual. She’s wearing headphones, racquet in hand, head down, legs tucked up. Nadal no longer gets that kind of height, but the memory of his high-flying bursts of energy live on in Swiatek.

The single shot most responsible for Serena Williams’ 23 Grand Slam singles titles was her searing serve. It was the most feared shot in the game. On the men’s side, it was Nadal’s massive lefty forehand.

The successor to Williams’ serve is Swiatek’s forehand. Because of the incredible spin she gets on the ball, it is a heavy, potentially lethal weapon. When Swiatek won the 2020 French Open, her fastest forehand, 79 miles per hour, was exceeded only by Jannik Sinner on the ATP. Swiatek averaged the highest topspin forehand rate among women, around 3,200 revolutions per minute. There was a gasp-inducing rocket in the final against Sofia Kenin clocked at 3,453 rpm. That was a little over the average compiled that year by Nadal, whose peak forehands have registered close to 5,000 rpm.

“Well, it’s not like I’m really focusing on that because he’s a guy,” Swiatek said. “He has different powers, different strengths. I’m never going to be able to spin the ball the way he spins it.”

But, of course, it’s all relative to the competition. No one else on the women’s side can produce that kind of nasty, biting spin.

“Obviously, she tries to control the game with her forehand,” said Brad Gilbert, currently coaching Coco Gauff. “And she plays uber-aggressive — uber-aggressive with margin.

“That’s what Rafa does. So if there’s any person to pattern yourself after, it’s him.”

The aura and intensity

Coco Gauff was born 15 months before Nadal won his first title at Roland Garros. Like Swiatek and a number of her peers, she’s a big Rafa fan.

“Honestly it’s very weird for me as a fan to come to terms with just because the majority of my life he’s been the Roland Garros winner,” the World No.3 told reporters in Rome. “I think I was in Madrid. It didn’t really hit that he was retiring yet. Now when I saw them do the little ceremony after, I was like this is real life, this is for real.

“I feel a little bit sad about it because he’s definitely one of my favorite players to watch. His mentality and intensity is something I admire.”

Gauff, 20, isn’t easily fazed. She charged into the fourth round at Wimbledon at the age of 15 and won her first Grand Slam singles title, at last year’s US Open, still a teenager. But when Nadal is on the adjacent practice court, well …

“I would literally zone out of my practice to watch him,” Gauff said. “I’ve practiced next to some incredible players on tour. He’s the only one that my eye wanders to. No disrespect to other players, but it’s something about him and his aura and the intensity in which he does everything.

“It’s just something to me as a young player to look up to.”

Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion, caught some of Nadal’s last match in Madrid, a fourth-round loss to Jiri Lehecka.

“It’s pretty amazing to see him play,” Rybakina said. “It’s a pity, of course, because you want to see him play many more years, but I think he had a great career. He’s such a legend, and so many young players look up to him.

“I think it’s great to see him play here, and hopefully French Open he can also show some good tennis. Yeah, let’s see.”

The apt word Gauff used to describe Nadal was grace.

“I remember last year at Roland Garros, he touched me on the back and said, `Hi, good job,’” Gauff said. “I didn’t respond until 20 tiles already down the stairs because I couldn’t believe he spoke to me. I think it’s little things like that that I’ll miss seeing on tour.

On the brink of history

Locked in what she later called “the most intense and crazy final” of her career, Swiatek found herself trailing Aryna Sabalenka 3-1 in the third set of this year’s Madrid Open final.

Naturally, her thoughts drifted to Nadal.

“One thing that came through my mind was that I think Rafa had a couple of matches like that,” Swiatek said. “I remember exactly when he was playing [Daniil] Medvedev in Australia [Open final in 2022] and it clicked for him.

“He also struggled for a bit of time, he was tense, and I think stressed. That kind of gave me hope that maybe it will click, even after two hours.”

Growing up, Iga Swiatek was captivated by Rafael Nadal’s playing style, and now, she’s dominating the clay courts with her own spin.

Indeed, it finally clicked for Swiatek in Madrid. Saving three match points, she won the third-set tiebreak 9-7 and survived the 3-hour, 11-minute match.

Her Grand Slam breakthrough, though, was curiously devoid of drama.

Ranked No.54 coming into 2020 Roland Garros, Swiatek won all seven matches in straight sets, including a 6-1, 6-2 torch-passing of former champion Simona Halep in the fourth round. It was only her seventh main draw in a major and she became only the second unseeded champion in the tournament’s history — and the youngest since Monica Seles

Less than four years later, Swiatek’s already on the threshold of entering rare history. A win this year in Paris would be her fourth and tie her with Justine Henin for third all-time among women in the Open Era. Another way of looking at it: Only four players — Nadal (14), Chris Evert (7), Steffi Graf and Bjorn Borg (6) — would have more French Open titles.

The list of those with three that Swiatek would pass is almost as impressive: Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Margaret Court, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Gustavo Kuerten and Novak Djokovic.

As you read this, she’s still only 22 years old. Evert, Graf and Henin all won their fourth Roland Garros title at the age of 25.

When Nadal bowed out in Rome, tens of thousands gathered under the bridge that links Stadio Centrale and the locker rooms to say goodbye. The ceremony in Madrid was nearly as heartfelt. Swiatek watched and, not surprisingly, was moved to tears.

“Mixed emotions because obviously I’m still pretty young so it’s hard for me to understand his exact situation,” Swiatek said. “He seems happy. That’s the most important thing.

“I think he’s going to be a good example of how you should approach this kind of stuff. It’s normal. Everyone’s obviously making a huge fuss around it. But it’s his life and he’s doing it the way he wants it, on his terms.”

And you get the idea that years from now, when it’s time to leave Swiatek will again follow Rafa’s lead.


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