Ukraine's Elina Svitolina, who is nine months postpartum with her first child and represents a country that has seen war, defeated World No. 1 and four-time Major champion Iga Swiatek on Tuesday to advance to the semifinals, which is one of the biggest achievements of her career thus far.
Svitolina only returned from maternity leave in April after giving birth to her daughter with fellow tennis player Gael Monfils; since then, she has advanced to the last four at SW19 and reached the quarterfinals of the French Open last month.
Svitolina isn't just displaying some of the best physical fortitude and mobility of her whole career; she's also discovered a newfound level of aggression to match her customary error-free play.
Additionally, she is the most well-known tennis player to have competed for her nation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Svitolina has been at the center of controversy surrounding her refusal to shake hands with Russian or Belarusian athletes over the past few months, and she has had to demonstrate a level of intensity and fortitude during a time when she has had to come to terms with the fact that many of her fans back home have been uprooted by war.
Since making her comeback, it is clear that Svitolina is not only playing for herself given everything that has transpired around her this year.
Svitolina and Swiatek squared off in the quarterfinals on Sunday after staging incredible comebacks to win their separate epic matches in the previous round. Similar strategies would be used in their conflict.
The first to bleed was Swiatek, whose victory against Belinda Bencic two days previously after saving match points was intended to introduce a new edge to her grass-court repertory. The Pole had a 5-3 lead in the opening set before Svitolina upped her game and used her fresh aggression to win four straight games and capture the opening set.
From there point on, Swiatek was disadvantaged the entire match, including the second-set tiebreaker, which Svitolina lost despite having a 4-1 lead. The Ukrainian, however, was aware of her opponent's vulnerability and allowed her natural game to take control, raising her level just in time to smother her stumbling rival.
Svitolina repeated her best-ever performance at a Major by winning on Tuesday. In 2019, she made it to the Wimbledon semifinals despite not being a fan favorite. Svitolina, though, endeared herself to the SW19 spectators in a way that she had never done before throughout the course of the past two sets.
This wasn't simply because she's a new mom and a Ukrainian star; it was also because of the caliber of tennis she's been able to create.
advancing her adversary
The formative years of the 28-year-old were when defensive-first counterpunching tactics dominated the women's tour. Being of that breed, especially in light of her achievements at the French Open last month, expectations for her performance on the London grass courts were never extremely high.
On Sunday, Svitolina dropped the first set 2-6 to Victoria Azarenka, a cunning and experienced player who may not be ranked first but frequently appears at the Majors. However, Svitolina came back to win the final set tiebreaker 11-9. Instead of just taking more shots, she was thinking creatively about how to move her opponent out of her hitting range by generating speed with her backhand.
The level of mental toughness Svitolina displayed this time was higher and more severe than previously. And in the quarterfinal, more of it was on display. Even though Svitolina trailed Swiatek for a significant portion of the first set, she took advantage of mistakes almost away.
Swiatek had not yet won a single point on her second serve when Svitolina leveled the score at 5-5. Svitolina was ready to attack as the pressure mounted and Swiatek missed her first serve, winning 92% of the points on that serve in that set. Swiatek started spraying her forehand as the pressure mounted, but Svitolina was ready to pounce. She used her backhand to force Swiatek to take more adventurous shots on the wing where she was making mistakes.