As Iga Swiatek battled for survival in the Last 16 against Belinda Bencic on Centre Court on Sunday, the World No 1’s next opponent, Elina Svitolina, also came through the fire against Victoria Azarenka, fighting from behind to win through to the quarter-finals, 2-6 6-4 7-6(9), after a 2 hour 46 minute skirmish.
I already said multiple times that until Russian troops are out of Ukraine, and we take back our territories, not going to shake hands,” she said. “So I have clear statement. I don't know how more clear I can be. Elina Svitolina
Not only was it a contest of enthralling tennis, it was also a dramatic political statement by Svitolina, who is Ukraine’s flag-bearer in the sport, especially when in combat against a Belarusian.
It was a shame, though, that Azarenka was booed off the court after her loss by the crowd on No 1 Court, who seemingly do not understand that it is Svitolina’s gesture, as with all the other Ukrainian players, not to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian players as a means of supporting their homeland in face of the war there.
Azarenka behaved impeccably, and later told the press: “It wasn’t fair. What should I have done?
“If people are going to be focusing only on handshakes or crowd, a quite drunk crowd, booing in the end, that’s a shame.”
The 33 -year old had respected Svitolina’s stance by simply raising her hand towards the Ukrainian, but the Belarusian’s gesture drew a negative response from the crowd, and, as she walked toward the exit, a roar of jeering was unleashed, prompting Azarenka to stop briefly, shake her head, before she gestured with both hands and left.
“I think that you guys [the media] are picking on every single move, and make such a big story out of that that there is really no point to do that,” she said. “I know Elina for a very long time. I’ve always had a good relationship with her. And the circumstances, it is what it is, and that’s it.”
Svitolina urged those in power to come out with a statement that there will be no handshakes between Ukrainian players and the Russians and Belarusians so the fans understand.
“I already said multiple times that until Russian troops are out of Ukraine, and we take back our territories, not going to shake hands,” she said. “So I have clear statement. I don’t know how more clear I can be.”
It was a pity, after such a compellingly competitive match, in which Azarenka took charge of the first set, winning all 7 of her net points, and never dropped her serve.
An early break then pushed the Belarusian to a 2-0 lead in the second, but Svitolina quickly pulled back level at 2-2 as she started to power through the court more frequently.
Svitolina saw 4 break points erased at 4-3, but she got 2 more opportunities at 5-4, and she converted her second set point with a powerful down-the-line winner.
The Ukrainian saw her 3-0 lead in the decider evaporate as Azarenka found patches of superb serving to stay with the unseeded player, but Svitolina also had routine service games during the second half of the set, and they moved into the decisive 10-point match-tiebreak.
The breaker was a representation of the match as a whole, with the lead often changing hands through to 7-7.
Svitolina struck an incredible passing winner to move ahead 8-7, but Azarenka countered for 8-8 after a down-the-line forehand kissed the sideline, setting up a forecourt winner.
Azarenka pulled off a nearly identical play to save Svitolina’s first match point at 9-8, but a Ukrainian drop-shot at the end of another intense rally forced a Belarusian error, and led to a second match point at 10-9, this time on Svitolina’s service.
Having the serve in her control made all the difference, and Svitolina fired her 8th ace to close out the win.
The crowd was solidly behind the Ukrainian throughout the match, greeting each of her winning points with loud applause and cheering, while several people waved small Ukrainian flags, and many shouted ‘Slava Ukraini’ or ‘Glory to Ukraine’.
“I heard a lot of Ukrainian people, actually, in the crowd,” Svitolina said afterwards. “This was really special.”
She added that she drew inspiration for the victory, which was her first over Azarenka in 6 attempts, from the fighting back home.
“I feel, of course, more pressure that I need to win,” she said about facing off against Russian and Belarusian players. “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.”
Last year, Wimbledon was the only Grand Slam tournament to bar Russian and Belarusian players, but organisers lifted the ban for this year’s Championship after being sanctioned by the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tours, which also threatened further punishment if it remained.
28-year old Svitolina disagreed with Wimbledon’s decision, but understands the organisers’ predicament.
“Last year it was clear message from Wimbledon,” she said. “This year it was changed because of different kind of pressure.”
She has also welcomed the support being offered to Ukrainian players by providing free accommodation for and practice facilities across the British grass-court season.
“It’s a huge help for us, because a lot of players right now, they had to relocate completely,” Svitolina said. “They are paying for their family, for their friends somewhere in Europe, to find a new home.”
Among those watching on Sunday was Evgeniy Zukin, the Executive Director of the Ukrainian Tennis Federation.
“Everybody understands that not all Russians are the same, or Belarusians,” Zukin said in an interview. “They’re individuals. But having in your mind, those soldiers on the front line fighting against Russians, you cannot shake hands here publicly.
“It was really, really frustrating last year, that nobody understands your pain, but then, in the end, we see that nobody cares about your pain. It’s just your pain. And we cannot blame anyone.”
Later, Azarenka shared her appreciation for Svitolina’s on-court performance.
“She was very solid today,” she said. “It was really about flip of the coin I think. It was very, very close.
“I probably will look back and see what I can do in terms of adjustments. I know I can play better tennis, for sure, and move on.”
The former World No 1 declared her intention to treat the defeat as a valuable learning experience.
“In the end of the day, it’s a tennis match,” she added. “It’s done. Nothing I can do to bring it back. It’s going to be a good learning experience for me to keep working hard, to come out next time and try again.”
Svitolina now faces a tough challenge in the form of Swiatek, the top seed, who has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022..
“Firstly, she’s a great champion, also a great person,” Svitolina said. “I’m really thankful for her support of Ukrainians, Ukraine, doing everything what is in her power, being vocal about that. She had also a big battle today, as well.
“Yes, for me, to be fair, I didn’t speak yet with my coach about what’s going to be the plan,” she added about their coming match. “But I’m going to tomorrow have a practice day. The priority is going to be to recover. Then I’m going to sit down with my coach, go through the game plan, see how I can find a way to beat her.”
At her press conference, Svitolina explained that she wanted to try something new in this phase of her life, and revealed that she has a new team with her, and is using a new racket, which has played a part in her change of approach.
“Well, [I] always was looking to be more aggressive, trying few things here and there,” she said. “But now, since the comeback, I try to look a bit differently. I have a new team with me. Just trying to bring something new into my game. I don’t know how many years I’m going to be on tour more, so why not to try few different things.
“I feel like my body is good. Physically I’m feeling quite good. Of course there’s few things that I still physically want to improve. But I’m feeling good and comfortable on the baseline. I made few changes on my racquet. I changed the racquet. I changed the string. Have new team, as well,” she added.
Meanwhile, Svitolina’s Wimbledon run has interfered with her concert plans, as she had to let go of her tickets to see Harry Styles in Vienna on Saturday night.
Styles is on the tail-end of his European tour and Svitolina was hoping to see one of her favourite musicians while she still had the chance, but she was too busy preparing for her match against Azarenka.
Styles was quick to step in to help the former World No 3, posting on Instagram: “Congratulations! We have four shows to go, you’re welcome at any of them. Good luck with the rest of the tournament.”
That gig will have to wait, as Svitolina and Swiatek are scheduled to lock horns in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Tuesday.