EXCLUSIVE! Becoming Iga Świątek: How small girl from Raszyn became World No. 1 tennis champ
A few years ago at the Raul Wallenberg Elementary School in the south of Warsaw, a group of older children was working on a geography project about volcanoes.
When teacher Agnieszka Zdziarska showed them one of the best volcano models from previous years, one of the pupils noticed with awe that the carefully built model showing an exploding volcano had been signed by world number one women’s tennis star Iga Świątek.
The model is prophetic, as soon after she made it, admittedly along with other school pals, Iga’s tennis career would also explode like a volcano.
The lava hasn’t stopped flowing. With a run of 35 matches unbeaten, two grand slam titles including this month’s French Open, and an accelerating gap at the top of the WTA ranking, Iga Świątek is well on her way to becoming one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
While those who know Iga agree that her success is mainly down to her incredible determination and strength of character as well as her father’s careful guiding hand, many have looked at where she spent her childhood to explain her improbable achievements.
Some have looked to where she lived as a child. Though she was born in and still returns to Raszyn, a bloated village on the southern edge of Warsaw known for internet memes about bad fashion (search for Faszyn from Raszyn), few people who live there have ever seen her.
A banner on the dual-carriageway that tears the village in half congratulates Iga on her recent win in Paris and the locals are clearly proud of her, but even the mayor admits that Raszyn has had little to do with Iga’s success.
But the truth is that while she lived in Raszyn, she did her growing up in Warsaw, where she trained and went to school.
If there is a special sauce to Iga’s success, the school on Bonifacego street in Stegny might have the recipe.
Its patron Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who is credited as saving as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, is not just a name on the website.
The school lives by the values it inherited from him – courage, overcoming difficulty, cooperation, realising your own strengths, modesty and empathy. In other words, Iga in a nutshell.
Świątek spent ten years from 2007 to 2017 at the Raul Wallenberg School. In Poland’s complicated public education system it meant she started in the last year of preschool, went through elementary school and then took three years of lower secondary school, all under one roof.
From a little girl who used to clamber up onto her teachers’ laps for hugs and cuddles, to a young woman on the cusp of a great career, the school left its mark on Iga and Iga has left her own legacy on the school.
Energetic headmistress Lidia Kumanek told TFN: “Iga came to us from faraway Raszyn, she could have gone somewhere closer to home, or to a sports school, but she came here.
“I don’t want the school to take undeserved credit, but maybe the time she spent here accounts for a tiny crumb of her success.”
With home in Raszyn fifteen kilometres away, it might seem like Iga’s parents made a strange choice.
But the Raul Wallenberg School is different. As an integrational school with a high proportion of children with physical disabilities, the school has a strong ethos on helping each child achieve their own individual goals while keeping their feet on the ground.
“We don’t like the word ‘success’. We prefer to think about overcoming weaknesses,” Kumanek said.
With Iga’s practice courts nearby and a school that offered her the flexibility to travel to tournaments, it was a nest from which Iga could flourish and fly.
As a pupil, she excelled in maths and English, and never allowed her fledgling tennis career to get in the way of schoolwork.
Geography teacher Agnieszka Zdziarska remembers a time when Iga was between tournaments, but she had a test she needed to take.
“She came to me to find a time she could take the test. We were looking at the timetable and I suggested Friday at 8 am. She immediately said it suited her.
“On Friday, she came and sat the test. When she handed back the paper I asked when she was leaving for the tournament. She said she was going to the airport right then. ‘Iga, you should have told me, we could have arranged another date’ I replied. ‘No, miss. I just wanted to get it over with’ she explained modestly. That was Iga.”
Now, when Zdziarska watches Iga winning tournaments on television she gets very emotional. “It feels like I am winning. We are all so proud of her.”
Iga still has strong ties with the school. After winning the French Open at the beginning of this month, she donated the shirt she wore in the final, some of the balls and her cap to the school, all signed.
They will be auctioned to raise money for a current pupil who needs urgent and expensive medical treatment.
According to Kumanek, when she came back home from Paris, the first people she met were her closest classmates.
She has also pledged to help upgrade the school’s sports facilities, among which is a single tennis court, which is popular with the pupils, but it is in a poor state of repair.
“We often say that if Iga had to train on that court, she would never have won in Paris,” Kumanek jokes.
When Kumanek walks through the school to show off the corner dedicated to Iga, several pupils run up to her for spontaneous hugs.
“In our school, children are hugged and kissed – children need this. I know this has fallen out of favour in other countries, but we still do it here.”
The Iga Świątek corner, made up of photographs of her time there and from her many tournament wins, feels like the spiritual heart of the school.
Some photos show a happy girl, but one often deep in thought with her head resting on her open palms.
Other photos show the Iga known to the world, on court clenching her fist after winning an important point.
Kumanek said, “When she was leaving our school, I asked Iga for a photo with her signature. She laughed with embarrassment.
“Then she and her dad made a whole collage with a dozen or so photos with her signature. When Iga became a champion, people who came to school were surprised how nice the poster was and they thought other pupils had made it. But Iga made it for us herself!”
Kumanek is particularly proud of the dedication Iga wrote thanking the school for ten years of life and learning. “You see, she wrote ‘life’ – it was more than just a place to learn for her.”
This year, the school celebrated its 30th anniversary, and it has a special award waiting for Iga to collect.
“We don’t know yet when she will be able to come and collect, but we hope it will be soon,” Kumanek said.
Based on Iga’s current form, the school has high hopes that she will be able to add the award to a Wimbledon singles title later this summer.