“People are suddenly interested in her”: In Poland, Swiatek earns unexpected hype
- 09 Oct 2020
Going up against Sofia Kenin this Saturday in the Roland-Garros final, Iga Swiatek will try to become the first Polish woman to win a singles Grand Slam. Whatever the case, the 19-year-old has already taken on a big challenge: to generate enthusiasm in her native country, where tennis is far from being a popular sport.
— Przegląd Sportowy (@przeglad) October 8, 2020
It is a point worth highlighting that it was tennis player, Iga Swiatek, who had the honor of being on the full page cover in the Polish sports daily Przeglad Sportowy. The headline was “Poland Garros,” in reference to the Pole’s run to the French Open final. On one hand that choice is obvious given Swiatek’s exceptional performance at Roland-Garros. But given the modest place that tennis occupies in Poland, such publicity is never a sure thing.
As in many places around the world, football (not American football, of course) hogs most of the headlines. Poland is no exception. In addition to that sport, the volleyball players — who are reigning back-to-back world champions — also get their due. Additionally, motorcycle races on an oval-shaped speedway thrill big crowds throughout each year. Cyclist Michał Kwiatkowski, track athlete Adam Kszczot, and ski jumper Dawid Kubacki are among some of Poland’s biggest stars. With a population of 38 million, this central European country is a fertile land for sports talent but rather barren when it comes to tennis.
Only 300,000 players
In 2019, the Polish Tennis Federation recorded about 300,000 players of the sport. In comparison, the French Tennis Federation has around one million. The courts are not numerous in Poland and fees for court time are relatively high. Tomasz Smokowski, a former Canal + Polska commentator and co-creator of the Kanał Sportowy Youtube channel, takes a critical look at the state of local tennis — which he follows diligently.
“We still do not have a dedicated national tennis center in Poland,” Smokowski commented. “Those who have made it into the sport owe much to their parents’ financial means. Everything remains to be done and, alas, I don’t think a Grand Slam title would make a difference.”
Agnieszka Radwańska (finalist at Wimbledon in 2012), Jerzy Janowicz (who peaked at No. 14 world in 2013), and Lukasz Kubot (former world No. 1 in doubles) are not pure products of the Polish team. They mostly built their careers outside of the Polish federation, doing so with their own funds. The same goes for the next generation, including Hubert Hurkacz (world No. 31 on the ATP Tour). And now, of course, there is Swiatek.
“So far, I don’t think she’s been accosted often on the street,” Smokowski said with a smile. “But things will change quickly for her and, from what I know, several sponsors and companies would like to sign her. “
“Now, Polish tennis fans abound on social networks”
After ousting 2019 Roland-Garros runner-up Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-2 in the first round, the Warsaw native continued her journey under the radar for a few rounds. That changed in the last 16, when Swiatek made headlines by stunning former champion and top seed Simona Halep 6-1, 6-1. It was a “real turning point,” according to Smokowski, because thereafter Swiatek started to attract a growing media interest and public enthusiasm.
“Around 150,000 viewers watched the round of 16 on Eurosport,” the journalist noted. “There were 600,000 for the quarter-finals against Martina Trevisan, then almost a million for the semi-finals against Nadia Podoroska. This last one was even broadcast unencrypted on TVN, which rarely shows sporting events. People are suddenly interested in her, and now tennis fans are swarming on social media.”
Despite its status as a niche sport, tennis — thanks to this 19-year-old — has managed to create some undeniable enthusiasm in Poland. And the best is undoubtedly yet to come.
“I’m sure this Saturday, starting at 3 p.m., broadcasters are going to break audience records,” Smokowski predicts. “It is on a weekend;people will be at home…. It will be a great show.”
If she succeeds in concluding her incredible fortnight victoriously, Swiatek will become the first representative of her country to win a Grand Slam tournament in singles. When she returns home, with her compatriots, the party would be all the more spectacular.