Elina Svitolina is on a mission on so many levels, which seems to suit her tennis as she has returned to the second week of Wimbledon, only back from her maternity break in April, and beating former Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin on Friday.
It’s another match, but, in a way, a lot of Ukrainians will be watching, will be supporting me. I will go out there, and put the fighting spirit on, and just really fight for every single point. Elina Svitolina
The Ukrainian, who is championing her homeland at every given opportunity, will next face Victoria Azarenka from Belarus, who made it into the Round of 16 at Wimbledon for the first time since 2017 with a win over Daria Kasatkina.
For Svitolina, Azarenka presents an ultimate test, as their encounter carries a great deal of political baggage with it, the Ukrainian having been born in Odessa and Azarenka a native of Russian ally Belarus, although she lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Focusing on ‘the now’ on Friday, Svitolina, who received a wild-card to play in The Championships, stopped Kenin, an American qualifier, in the tracks of her impressive come-back run, 7-6(3) 6-2.
Both, in fact, are on come-back quests, with Kenin clawing her way back up the rankings after years in the doldrums and Svitolina, a new mother reigniting her career and playing for her war-torn country.
Both are former Top 5 players, out to prove their worth, but Svitolina came into the match with a 3-2 head-to-head edge, although their previous matches had all occurred in 2019.
Svitolina was off the tour for more than a year after giving birth to daughter Skaï in October of 2022, and started slowly on her return, losing 4 of her first 5 matches, but she has eventually regained the form that pulled her to No 3 in the world, winning the Strasbourg title, and reaching the Roland Garros quarter-finals.
She has now reached the second week at two consecutive majors, after being ranked outside the Top 1000 just 3 months ago, making a welcome return to SW19, where she had a semi-final showing in 2019.
“I think today I just had to put fighting spirit in front of me, and just try to really be focused on myself and trying to fight for every single ball,” Svitolina said after her win over Kenin, who won her maiden Grand Slam in Melbourne in 2020, and is currently ranked No 128 in the world.
Kenin has also reclaimed some of her top form this week, notching up an upset of compatriot Coco Gauff, the World No 7, in the 1st-round, and then beating Wang Xinyu in the 2nd.
The American used deft drop-shots to build an early 3-1 lead in the first set against Svitolina, and she was a point away from 4-1 before the Ukrainian was able to erase a break point during a lengthy hold for 3-2.
After dodging that bullet, Svitolina surged, breaking Kenin to love to level the set at 3-3.
All 5 of their previous meetings had featured at least one tiebreak set, and this time was no exception.
In the breaker, Svitolina took charge, following a drop-shot with a forehand passing winner to lead 5-3.
An ace gave the Ukrainian 3 set points at 6-3, and she needed only one as Kenin double-faulted to cede the set.
“I had to really play one point at a time and to not get too frustrated,” Svitolina said. “I think this was important as well. So really happy I could handle that first set. Tiebreak is never easy.”
After gritting out the first set by a whisker-thin margin, Svitolina was untroubled in the second, and she never faced a break point again, cruising to the win in 1 hour and 32 minutes to set her latest meeting with Azarenka.
It is a match-up between 2 mothers, which is still noteworthy albeit less rare these days on the WTA Tour.
28-year old Svitolina returned 6 months after giving birth to her daughter and already has lifted a title and has a quarter-final appearance at Rolland Garros to show for it.
33-year old Azarenka, a former World No 1, gave birth to her son, Leo, in 2016, and made her come-back two years later, eventually rising back to No 20 in the world coming into Wimbledon.
Azarenka, the 19th seed here, took out Kasatkina, the 11th seed, 6-2 6-4, earlier on Friday, and holds all the cards in her head-to-head record with Svitolina up to this point, winning all 5 of their previous encounters.
The Belarusian, who has made it into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time in 6 years, needed an hour and 16 minutes to extend her undefeated record against Kasatkina to 4-0, and score her 75th career win over a Top 10 player.
“I felt like today was my best performance this tournament,” Azarenka said afterwards. “I played very solid from the beginning to the end. It was a lot of really interesting rallies, quite a lot of variety today that I was able to use in my match.
“I was real proud of my movement. I thought it really picked up from the beginning of the tournament. Yeah, was happy to finish in two sets.”
The two-time Australian Open champion is into the Last 16 at Wimbledon for the 6th time in her career and the first time since 2017, while her best performances at The Championships are back-to-back semi-finals in 2011 and 2012.
On Friday, Azarenka earned a critical break for 4-2 with consecutive backhand winners, then switched over and dominated with her forehand wing during the next 2 games.
Down set point, Kasatkina double-faulted to cede her service to Azarenka for the third and final time in the set.
Kasatkina improved her groundstroke depth to pull from 3-1 down to 3-3 in the second, but Azarenka’s returns remained on point, and she broke the Russian at 5-4 to grab the win, converting 5 of her 6 break points as she booked a return engagement in the Round of 16.
The coming match-up will test Svitolina’s mettle, both mentally and physically.
“It’s another match, but, in a way, a lot of Ukrainians will be watching, will be supporting me,” Svitolina said. “I will go out there, and put the fighting spirit on, and just really fight for every single point.”
When she first took her sabbatical from the game in March 2022, and then announced her pregnancy months later, she threw herself into fundraising for Ukraine through her foundation, and has donated her prize money to help children there since she resumed playing.
A former World No 3, Svitolina was an undeniable, consistent talent before her break, one of many women vying to rule the WTA at the tail-end of Serena Williams’s career.
“I’m just more fresh. Physically and also mentally more, you know, motivated in some ways,” Svitolina said. “You know, for my country, I cannot complain, you know, on my life and what I have now.
“It’s just, every day, I take as opportunity to be better, opportunity to fight for my country. Yeah, just I think those little things make this big motivation for me to be better.”
She will not consider her come-back complete until she is back from her current world ranking of 76 into the Top 10.
“I always have high expectations. It might sound arrogant maybe, but I will always have high expectations for myself,” she said. “Each time I play the tournament, I want to win it. Doesn’t matter.
“Even the first tournament that I played in Charleston, everybody was telling me, ‘Oh, it’s unbelievable, you’re playing your first tournament already in April’, but I even then had a goal to win the tournament because, you know, why I’m playing then?”
Svitolina acknowledges the great effort it takes for her to concentrate on playing well, with tragedy unfolding in her home country, and a young family on her mind.
To help that, her daughter, Skai, stayed home with her two grandmothers and husband Gael Monfils, who Svitolina reports, is equal parts tired and supportive.
“For me, it’s a big motivation. … I think for my country as well,” Svitolina said. “Looking forward to this challenge.”