Elina Svitolina’s quest continues at Wimbledon, where she stunned World No 1 Iga Swiatek in 3 sets to advance to the semi-finals on Tuesday, where she will play Marketa Vondrousova, who upset Jessica Pegula on No 1 Court, for a place in the final.
She's coming back after becoming a mother, I’ll root for her, especially because we like each other as people. I told her on the net that I hope she win this tournament. You know how it is in tennis: it’s tough to win a Grand Slam. I know that for sure she wants it really bad. So I will be rooting for her, yeah. Iga Świątek
The 28-year old Ukrainian is on her personal Mission Impossible assignment, championing her homeland by playing the tennis of her life, just 9 months after giving birth to her first daughter, with her husband, fellow player Gael Monfils, after only returning to the WTA Tour in April.
Wild-carded into the draw, the former World No 3 is in her second career semi-final at Wimbledon, beating the best in the world to boot, 7-5 6-7(5) 6-2 in a 2 hour 51 minute quarter-final contest full of drama and thrilling tennis.
Svitolina dominated the third set when, on match point, Swiatek made the last of her 41 unforced errors, hitting the ball into the net during a short rally.
“First of all I’m going to have a beer, probably,” Svitolina said after the match. “‘I’m going to enjoy it with my team.
“At the beginning of the tournament, if you told me I was going to be in the semi-final, beat the World No 1, I would say you are crazy!
“I’m just going to enjoy tonight and then get some treatments, a massage – much needed! And then just regroup and be ready for the next battle.”
Each match here has held its own level of importance and consequence for the Ukrainian.
“I feel responsibility,” Svitolina said after beating Belarusian Victoria Azarenka. “If I’m going out to play this match against Russian, Belarusian, I feel, of course, more pressure that I need to win.
“That’s why it means a lot to get these kinds of wins. In my own way, to bring this victory, small victory, to Ukraine.”
It has been more than 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, initiating a conflict that has caused tens of thousands of deaths, including significant numbers of civilians and children.
“I know that lots of people back in Ukraine [are] watching,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “I got a really massive amount of messages from last round. I didn’t really check my phone yet today, but I think there will be a lot of messages, a lot of news.”
By her own admission, grass is a surface that Swiatek is trying to get to grips with, but she had made it into the quarter-finals after seeing off 2 match points against Belinda Bencic, and clearly is getting the hang of it.
The youngest of the ladies’ quarter-finalists at 22, the Pole is also the most accomplished, after securing her 3rd Roland-Garros title, and 4th Grand Slam overall, last month, all on other surfaces.
Determined to assert her authority from the outset, Swiatek gained an opening game service break and consolidated for a 2-0 lead.
Svitolina, contesting her 9th main draw campaign at The Championships, recovered the break in the 4th game, and, although she failed to consolidate, an error-prone Swiatek already was feeling the pressure.
The Ukrainian sensed that her opponent was vulnerable, and pounced, taking the ball earlier by moving closer to the baseline, attacking on returns, and seeking out forehands to unload on.
Under pressure for the first time, the No 1 seed crumbled, and, from 5-3 up, Swiatek conceded the last 4 games of the first set, dissolving in a flurry of errors, mostly off her wayward forehand, and an untimely double-fault, before closing it off with a dire backhand volley miscue.
Finding herself down a set after 57 minutes, Swiatek’s forehand was lacking the deadly accuracy that usually contributes to the Pole’s dominant play, primarily because of the low and sometimes unpredictable bounce of the ball on the grass, and it clearly was making her feel uncomfortable.
Other weapons in the Swiatek arsenal include her steel-trap mind, and her determination to solve problems, but, on this occasion, she looked so uncertain at times, especially as she dropped the first set from a winning position.
Writing in her notebook on the change-over, Swiatek was searching for answers.
Then, fortuitously, the © of Centre Court was closed as rain began to fall, allowing for an off-court chat with her coach, and an on-court briefing from her psychologist.
Svitolina continued to test Swiatek’s shot tolerance by refusing to miss, and the young Pole battled to keep her error count down, as her forehand once again became loose.
Swiatek held on to force a tiebreak, though, and while Svitolina flitted through the early stages, slamming down an ace to lead 4-1, and it looked as if the was slipping away for the second time in two days, the World No 1 responded to the pressure with an unbelievable show of mental strength, ending the breaker with 5 winners, or point-ending shots, over the last 6 points, to take matters into a third set.
Svitolina could have finished off the win in 2 sets, as she came from a break down in both of the first two sets to put herself in good position for the upset, but when Swiatek levelled, many believed it was just a matter of time before she pulled off the win.
It was not to be, as Svitolina rebounded quickly, holding at deuce for 1-1 to stifle Swiatek’s momentum, which was the first of 5 straight games that she won to sprint ahead towards the end, and she never faced a break point in her final canter.
“Lots of good rallies we had. Lots of good games. Tough situations. Tough moments,” Svitolina said. “The crowd was great today. Really enjoyed the match.
“Even though I was really disappointed with the second set, that I couldn’t win in two, but Iga played unbelievable. All credits to her to winning that second set, but then I tried to bounce back, tried to again go again. Yeah, just found myself winning the match in the end.”
With her win, Svitolina became only the 3rd player in the Open Era to beat 4 former Grand Slam champions in a single major tournament – Venus Williams in the 1st-round, Sofia Kenin in the 3rd, Victoria Azarenka in the 4th and Swiatek in the quarters – joining Serena Williams at the US Open in 1999 and Justin Henin at the 2005 French Open. Both Williams and Henin went on to win those tournaments.
After sharing a warm embrace at the net, Svitolina paid an emotional tribute to Swiatek, who has been vocal in her support for Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion.
“It was much tougher game I would say because she’s a great person, she’s a big champion,” Svitolina said. “She’s done so much, and doing still so much for Ukraine. We really admire her.
“Iga is not only a great champion, she is an unbelievable person. She was one of the first ones who really helped Ukrainian people and, you know, it was a huge help for Ukraine.
“For sure it is not easy to play against someone that you share a lot of good moments… I think, for her, as well, it was not easy. But in the end I am really proud and thanks so much [to the crowd] for cheering for me all the way.”
An unseeded finalist is guaranteed out of the top half of the draw as Svitolina will face Vondrousova, the left-handed Czech, who was the 2019 Roland Garros finalist and is ranked No 43 in the world.
Svitolina may be ranked 76, but she has risen to the top of the game to World No 3, and is an experienced campaigner, who Swiatek says she will be rooting for to go the distance.
“I think, overall, looking at her career, having [a] Grand Slam title would be pretty amazing for her,” Swiatek said later. “She’s coming back after becoming a mother, I’ll root for her, especially because we like each other as people.
“I told her on the net that I hope she win this tournament. You know how it is in tennis: it’s tough to win a Grand Slam. I know that for sure she wants it really bad. So I will be rooting for her, yeah,” Swiatek added.
“I think she played with more freedom and more guts. Sometimes she really just let go of her hand and she played really, really fast. I don’t know if she played like that before, because we just played once.
“We also practiced in Australia. I didn’t remember that she was changing rhythm so much in terms of playing these faster shots sometimes.”
Amid the fight for survival in war-torn Ukraine, Svitolina’s run, including her stunning win over Swiatek, has given her country a much-needed boost and reason to cheer.
In a perfect world, sports and politics should not mingle, but many will be urging Svitolina on her quest, hoping her fairy-tale run can land in ultimate success, the title, for so many reasons.