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When Iga Swiatek, the world’s top-ranked women’s tennis player, travels to tournaments around the globe, her bag is filled with the usual accoutrements of superstars in her sport: racket, wardrobe, Legos. OK, Swiatek is likely the only three-time major winner toting around tiny plastic bricks. During the pandemic, Swiatek began toying with Legos; she finds the process of building the Disney World castle, or a Porsche, or the International Space Station relaxing.

Her habit isn’t kid’s play. Swiatek, the Poland native who has held the No. 1 ranking for more than a year, has expertly approached tennis from all angles, combining psychological training—her shrink introduced her to Legos—biomechanical expertise, and a fierce forehand to ascend to the top of her game. Swiatek earned a pair of Grand Slam titles—the French Open and U.S. Open—in 2022, at one point winning an incredible 37 consecutive matches over a 135-day stretch from mid-February through early July. At the same time, Swiatek has found her voice off the court, emerging as an advocate for mental health and a voice for Ukrainian players on tour, who are competing while their homeland remains under Russian siege.

“She’s a leader that doesn’t yell at the top of a mountain,” says 18-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert. “She’s more soft-spoken. Yet when Iga speaks, people will listen.”

With Serena Williams having retired from tennis, the sport is searching for its next generational star. Swiatek has won two of the past three French Opens, and she’ll enter this year’s Roland Garros, which begins in late May, as a strong favorite. Here’s another chance for Swiatek to stake her claim as the player to reckon with this decade. “You can’t find anyone who moves better, who has a better forehand, and who’s been mentally tougher in the last 14 months than Iga,” says tennis broadcaster Pam Shriver, a former tour player. “She’s a little bit of a throwback, old-school No. 1 player.”

Swiatek started playing tennis at around 6 or 7. “I always had a lot of energy,” she says. “So I needed something to kind of waste it on. But it wasn’t a waste.”

Her father Tomasz was an Olympic rower who competed for Poland at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Her mother Dorota is an orthodontist. Tomasz steered Iga and her older sister into individual sports, so they had a better chance of controlling their own success. Swiatek enjoyed soccer when she was young, but tennis better fit her personality. “I’m an individualist,” says Swiatek. “I want to have full control. It would be annoying for me if I didn’t.”

The same year Swiatek began playing on the WTA Tour, 2019, she started working with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, a former competitive sailing athlete. Swiatek felt she needed more focus during her matches; all the time stops between points and games allowed her mind to wander. Now, mental training is central to her regimen.

Abramowicz combines digital and analog methods to optimize Swiatek’s performance. Swiatek will wear a -device on her ear that measures electrical activity in her brain. They work on visualization. And to give her brain a workout, Abramowicz will use flash cards and puzzles to test Swiatek’s cognitive reaction time. To de-stress, Swiatek devours books. In early April, she started reading actor Matthew Perry’s autobiography. “I heard it’s really honest and interesting,” she says. Abramowicz suggested the Legos.

In October 2021, in honor of World Mental Health Day, Swiatek announced she’d donate $50,000 of her third-round prize money at the Indian Wells tournament to mental-health charities in Poland. She made a similar donation—more than $56,000—last year, at a tournament in the Czech Republic. “I realized how easier our lives could be if we work a little bit on ourselves,” she says.

Swiatek still wears a ribbon on her cap supporting Ukraine, which shares a border with Poland. Other players stopped wearing them last year. “I didn’t really get that,” says Swiatek. “The memory of our society is short sometimes.” In July 2022 Swiatek organized a charity match for Ukraine in Krakow: the event raised some $500,000, which was distributed to three nonprofits providing aid in Ukraine.

As the war has dragged on, tensions have mounted. Ukrainian player Lesia Tsurenko withdrew from a match at the Indian Wells tournament in March, citing a panic attack. Tsurenko had talked to WTA president Steve Simon, and felt Simon was not prioritizing the well-being of players from her country. (The WTA said in a statement, in part, that the organization “has consistently reflected our full support for Ukraine and strongly condemn the actions that have been brought forth by the Russian government.”) At Indian Wells, Swiatek criticized a Russian player for walking out to a match wearing the jersey of a Russian pro soccer club.

“Players from Ukraine are carrying a lot of baggage on their shoulders,” Swiatek says. “And sometimes I feel like the WTA was focusing on being fair to all the players, in terms of allowing Russian and Belarusian players. Suddenly, in that discussion, we forgot about helping Ukrainians a little bit.” Swiatek says she’s been talking to WTA leadership about this sensitive matter. “It’s a war,” says Swiatek. “And you can’t get anybody happy unless the war is going to stop.”

Swiatek’s team pays careful attention to both her physical and mental health. She badly wanted to compete at last season’s Madrid Open, for example. But she had a nagging shoulder injury, and physiological data taken by her strength coach, Maciej Ryszczuk, showed that her power metrics were dropping. It was an ideal time for a rest. Swiatek sat out Madrid—and won her next two clay-court tournaments, including the French.

She’s currently taking the same measured approach. Swiatek skipped the Miami tournament in March with a rib injury, so she can be fresher for the clay-court season. Back in 2016, as a junior player, she made her first trip to Roland Garros, the only Grand Slam on clay. That moment inspired her. “It’s basically the place where I chose that I want to be a tennis player,” Swiatek says. “I saw all these courts and tennis superstars just passing by. It just struck me that, ‘Wow, maybe I have a chance to be there in the future and to live this life.’”

Before that trip, she viewed tennis as a task her father made her do. Now, she’s set to win a third French Open title. Pack the Legos for Paris.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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