It’s time to consider whether having a child and taking a year out of the sport to raise money to help her compatriots in her homeland of Ukraine has made Elina Svitolina a better tennis player.
She says so, and there’s no reason not to believe her.
Svitolina’s unlikely run at Wimbledon kicked off Tuesday with a bang. Two days after her new mother, Svitolina, who needed a wild card to enter the tournament, defeated former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in an emotional and dramatic victory, Svitolina is now Defeated world No. 1 Iga Siwiatek.
Svitolina, who played with courage, steely strength and a higher purpose, went head-to-head against hard-hitting Siwiatek, on the most sacred court in sport, and has been with her since her first shot. brought joy to the audience. A tournament I thought was over.
When the match was over, Svitolina put her hands to her face, hugged Siphiatek over the net, and raised her arms to the crowd in disbelief.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Svitolina told them immediately.
Some are difficult to explain.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine 18 months ago, Svitolina announced she was taking a break from professional tennis after she became pregnant with her first child with her husband, veteran tour pro and tennis showman Gael Monfils from France.
Tennis was hardly a priority at the time anyway. Her pregnancy was top of the list, as was fundraising for war relief efforts in her home country. Her foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars since the war began.
In October, she and Monfils announced the birth of their daughter Skye. Shortly thereafter, Svitolina began training and practicing for her return to the WTA Tour at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March.
It didn’t work at first. After losing six of her first seven matches, Svitolina was a graceful and deceptively powerful player who was ranked No. For the ball, and for the competition.
And she made it clear that tennis is no longer about money or ranking points, especially during the French Open in Paris. It was to try to bring joy to the Ukrainian people.
She achieved it well when she reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Still, she’s made it through the second round just two of eight tries there, and she hasn’t competed on grass since 2021 until last month. Her hopes were so thin that she bought tickets to a Harry Styles concert last week thinking she would be free.
Instead, she said after Tuesday’s victory over Siwiatek, she wouldn’t immediately take up the pop star’s offer to invite her to a concert.
“His words were very kind,” she said of Styles’ offer. “I hope I can go someday.”
At least we’ll have to wait until Thursday’s semi-final against Marketa Vondersova (Czech Republic), who defeated Jessica Pegula (USA) in three sets. If she beats Bondrosova, she could face either the Belarusian (Alina Sabalenka) or the reigning champion of Kazakhstan, Elena Rybakina, who grew up in Russia, in the final. Sabalenka and Ryvakina will play their quarterfinal match on Wednesday and are the frontrunners.
But that’s still a ways off, and it’s sure to bring about the same tension as Svitolina’s fourth-round victory over Azarenka. Russian and Belarusian players were banned from the tournament last year and although they were generally warmly welcomed, Svitolina and other Ukrainian players refused to shake hands with those countries.
Azarenka was booed from the court after Svitolina’s victory on Sunday, even though she gave Svitolina a thumbs-up after the final point – which Svitolina said was unfair. Azarenka last year told Ukrainian players to stop when he offered to take part in charity work for war relief efforts. But the boos still rained down.
A sharp critic of aggression from Poland, Światek has contributed more to war relief efforts than any non-Ukrainian player.
But Tuesday’s game was not without a healthy dose of tension. The four-time Grand Slam champion Siwiatek appeared to be in control early on, taking serve in the first set at 5-4. She then missed a series of tentative, rough forehands and first serves. Svitolina kept hitting shots on the tight wire for the rest of the afternoon, repeatedly clearing the net by just inches.
She scored 16 of her last 18 points in the first set. As rain fell and the roof closed on the way, a panicked Siwiatek turned to the corner of the court and asked her team for answers.
“I felt like I was making about the same mistake,” Swiatek said. “I just wanted a hint of what they think I should really be focusing on. When something goes wrong, there can be several reasons, and if it’s hard to find out why. there is.”
The biggest reason was Svitolina. She later said she was playing with a different kind of inspiration. She spent the past two days watching videos of children in Ukraine watching the game on their mobile phones. She knows what her own victory means and where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
There is power in all of it.
“War made me stronger, made me stronger mentally,” she said. “I don’t see difficult situations as disasters. There are worse things in life. I’m just more calm.”
There can be no doubt. She desperately wants to win, but her experience with pressure has changed.
“I see things a little differently,” she said.
After walking off the court, she FaceTimed Monfils, who was caring for her daughter at home with her mother. She didn’t speak to Sky much, she said. She distracted herself by eating ice cream.
Will she be able to win this tournament, and most of all, the big prize?
As after the Azarenka fight, she insisted she never intended to go this far. She hasn’t let her husband come because he hasn’t come here yet and she hasn’t ruined her routine now. Anyway, who needs him, especially against his Russian and Belarusian counterparts, when she has another purpose and another power?
“Every time I play against them, I feel a big motivation and a big responsibility,” she said. “I’m so far away now. It seems so close, but it’s so far away.”