Welcome to Iga’s Bakery: How the world No 1 bagels her opponents

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Welcome to Iga’s Bakery: How the world No 1 bagels her opponents


This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic, which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here.


Getting ‘bagelled’ in tennis is a humiliation.

To not win a single game suggests a mismatch, that one of the players is either out of their depth or having a terrible day on court.

Bagels — as sets that end 6-0 are known, because the zero looks like one — are seen as such an embarrassment largely because they are so rare. Twelve per cent of WTA Tour matches in 2023 included a bagel, according to data from Opta.

In just five years on tour however, world No 1 Iga Swiatek has shattered this orthodoxy.

During 2023, Swiatek won a bagel set in 29 per cent of her matches. That’s almost one in three. Her total of 23 bagels for the year was 15 higher than the players with the second-most on the women’s tour — Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, both with eight. Excluding matches Swiatek played in, the average for the WTA Tour last year was a bagel set in just 11.4 per cent of matches, according to Opta.

For Swiatek’s WTA career as a whole, an average of 40.6 per cent of her matches have included either a 6-0 set or a 6-1.


Swiatek is ruthless in running over opponents (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

That’s a bagel or breadstick in close to half of her tour matches — you can see why the term “Iga’s Bakery” has entered tennis parlance.

Heading into the looming French Open, where Swiatek is a three-time champion and winner of the past two tournaments, she shows no signs of slowing down. In 2024, Swiatek has won the most bagel sets (eight) of anyone on the WTA Tour, ahead of Gauff (seven) and Aryna Sabalenka (five).

In her last two events — winning the title in Madrid and also in Rome — Swiatek has dished out three bagel sets. And as The Athletic showed last month, her number of bagels per week while world No 1 stacks up against the greats — bettered only by 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert.

But how does she do it? Using data from Hawk-Eye and speaking to the players who have to face her each week, including world No 3 Gauff, world No 4 and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, and Grand Slam winners including Victoria Azarenka and Marketa Vondrousova, here are the staple ingredients at Iga’s Bakery.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Iga Swiatek’s 100 weeks as world No 1: The streak, the slams, the bagels


To regularly win bagel sets, you have to be solid in all areas, particularly in returning well enough that every game is about who is the better tennis player, rather than the better server.

Swiatek is a master of this, and that’s why she is so good at running away with sets.

“She doesn’t have any holes in her game,” says world No 11 Daria Kasatkina, who has lost in straight sets the last five times she’s played Swiatek. These include a 6-3, 6-0 defeat in Doha, Qatar two years ago.

“In tennis in general, that’s very important. She returns very well, and though sometimes she can have some troubles on serve, generally she’s very stable in all aspects. She can switch from defence to attack very quickly. So for me, this is one of her weapons. And mentally, she is very strong.”


Swiatek has 21 titles at 22, including four Grand Slams (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Vondrousova, the world No 6 and reigning Wimbledon champion, has played Swiatek three times and is yet to win a set, suffering a bagel and two breadsticks. “If she’s on fire, there’s not much you can do. She doesn’t have a worse side to try and hit,” Vondrousova says.

Having accumulated over 100 weeks as world No 1, Swiatek’s base level is clearly outstanding — even in sets she doesn’t win to love or one. But is there anything she does especially differently when running away with it?


Using Hawk-Eye data, The Athletic has sorted Swiatek’s sets played into bagels and those that were 6-2 or closer.

In her bagel sets, Swiatek produces more unreturned serves: 31 per cent compared to 27 per cent. Her service games get quicker by 17 seconds on average as a result; her return games, meanwhile, speed up by 16 seconds.

This supports what the eye-test says. Watching Swiatek put another bagel in the oven, it feels that things are spiralling quickly out of control for her opponent. This is demonstrated by the average length of return games, which are three minutes and 18 seconds if it’s game one of a bagel set; four minutes and 48 seconds if it’s the third game; and three minutes and three seconds if it’s the sixth.

By this point, whoever Swiatek is playing is seemingly thinking, ‘Please, make it stop’, and is almost happy to get off the court. By the sixth game of a bagel set, Swiatek hits her returns four miles per hour faster on average than in game one — reflecting a higher level of aggression as she motors towards the finishing line.

Overall, Swiatek returns far better in sets she wins 6-0 than in the ones that are 6-2 or closer. She returns 88 per cent of first serves and 92 per cent of second serves in the former, compared to 79 per cent and 84 per cent in the latter.


Swiatek is a master of playing with a lead (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

As well as getting more balls in play, she returns more aggressively in bagel sets. Her first-serve return hit point is closer to the baseline (12.2m from the net compared to 12.4m) and her first-serve return net clearance is lower (87cm compared to 92cm).

These are small numbers in isolation, but put together they add up to Swiatek strangling her opponents’ game.

“I felt like her depth was so good from the first ball,” world No 16 Madison Keys, who in the past few weeks has lost 6-1, 6-3 to Switaek in both Madrid and Rome, says of that first meeting. “She makes you feel like you can never get your foot on the gas. And then, all of a sudden, you’re the one backing up off the baseline, and that’s not a scenario you want to find yourself in. You don’t want to be behind the baseline trying to run.

“She puts you in a tricky position because you feel like you have to go for something you don’t want to and then you’re threading the needle between going for something that could be dumb but also feeling like it’s kind of the only thing you can do.”

Players don’t just struggle to stay with her — she takes matches away from them.

When Swiatek is rolling, she gets more clinical.


Facing Swiatek on a roll can be a disorienting experience (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Break-point conversion rises to 67.9 per cent in bagel sets from 54.7 in closer ones, and she wins 31.5 per cent of converted break points with a winner, compared to 26.1 per cent. In general, Swiatek’s winners as a proportion of her points won go up in bagel sets (from 26.1 per cent to 28.9), as do points won from forced errors (17.2 per cent up to 18.5 per cent).

As Keys explained, a lot of those forced errors come from players feeling like they have to go for more than they are really comfortable with.


What is striking about all these data points is that Swiatek’s groundstrokes don’t change all that much.

Her average forehand speed is the same (75mph), as is her average backhand speed (70mph). The spin rate is a bit higher during bagel sets on both the forehand (2476rpm compared to 2416) and on the backhand side (1965rpm compared to 1901), but not by much. Her average net clearance is similar on both wings as well.

This suggests that the sequences where Swiatek rolls through games are as much about momentum and flow as they are technique. The dominance becomes self-fulfilling once she wins a few games, and she and her opponent both feel like they know what’s coming next, so the starts and ends of points become more inevitable; what happens in between is less important.

Additionally, Swiatek is not a player who eases into tournaments — she often racks up thumping wins early on, which although they are theoretically against weaker opponents, still send out a message to her rivals and make her even more ominous as she moves through a draw.


Swiatek’s remodelled serve has made her even more of a threat (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

One of Swiatek’s predecessors as world No 1, Naomi Osaka, who lost 6-4, 6-0 when the pair last met two years ago, says it’s “incredible” how Swiatek can keep delivering point after point, week after week: “It’s something that I honestly can’t fathom from back when I was No 1 for like five seconds.”

“It’s her ability to play one point at a time that puts a lot of pressure on her opponents,” says two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka, who has lost 6-4, 6-0 and 6-4, 6-1 to Swiatek in their two most recent meetings. “Not many people can figure it out.”

Keys, who has beaten Swiatek previously but has also suffered a 6-1, 6-0 defeat on top of those recent losses, agrees: “Her intensity is basically unmatched by anyone else. She’s on you every single point.”

Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion who was beaten 6-4, 6-1 by Swiatek in that year’s French Open final, describes her as “super intense”. During that run at Roland Garros four years ago, Swiatek won a breadstick set in six of her seven matches.


Swiatek’s win over Kenin was her first Grand Slam title (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

This psychological torture doesn’t stop when they get off the court.

Swiatek’s opponents — and would-be opponents as draws unfold — find themselves in a vicious cycle: the more bagel sets she wins, the more they fear them, and the more likely they become.

Players are actively having to try to block out this reputation she has when preparing to face her.

“I think if you start thinking, ‘Ah, maybe I’m gonna get a 6-0 from Iga’, then you’ll probably end up getting one,” three-time Grand Slam finalist Ons Jabeur, who lost the pair’s most recent meeting 6-1, 6-2, told The Athletic this week. “Getting that kind of karma.

“Not thinking like that is the most important thing. She’s such an amazing player, but you should always think about yourself and not get into that mindset.”


Swiatek’s relentlessness creates an aura that her opponents sometimes struggle to handle (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

This is easier said than done.

Her opponents have a hard enough time managing their mental state before accounting for the fact that Swiatek is a master of diagnosing it from the other end of the court, feeding off it, and taking their mind as much as their body. She is an elite problem solver, having been a gifted mathematician at school; once she has figured a player out, there is very little they can do.

Gauff, who has lost 10 of her 11 meetings with Swiatek (including 6-1, 6-3 in the French Open final two years ago) and has been bagelled by her three times, agrees: “When you’re playing her, you shouldn’t worry about the results in the previous matches, because every day is a new match and a new opportunity. I think if you play her thinking about her results, then you probably (already) lost the match.

“I just approach every match as a clean slate. I think it’s even more important when you’re playing against somebody who has done well in the past, just because you don’t want that to affect how you play.”

How hard is that to do?

“For me, not that hard,” Gauff says, “just because I feel like in the past, with the way my career has gone, I played a lot of big names early. I think I just got used to separating the name from, I guess, the match. So for me, it’s not that difficult. Obviously, playing Iga herself is difficult. But I guess that aspect doesn’t affect me when I’m playing her.”

Rybakina, who has a 4-2 winning record against Swiatek, says it’s about being focused for every single point: “You have to constantly be saying to yourself what you have to do.”

To try to crack the code though, we turn to Jelena Ostapenko — the all-or-nothing Latvian who has an astonishing 4-0 winning record against Swiatek. How does she not only avoid getting bagelled by Swiatek, but actually find a way to beat her every time?

“That’s my top secret,” Ostapenko replies, with a grin. “I’m not going to say anything.”

OK, but how hard is it to live with her when she gets going? “That’s my secret,” she repeats.

Time to put the bagel slicer away.

And even if Ostapenko did reveal her secrets, knowing what to do to stop Swiatek is one thing; pulling it off under pressure is quite another.

As tennis turns to Paris for this year’s French Open, Iga’s Bakery arrives in the viennoiserie capital of the world very much open for business.

(Top photos: Patrick Smith; Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; design: John Bradford)



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