HIGHLIGHTS: Svitolina d. Wozniacki, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3, at the WTA Finals
Coming into this year’s WTA Finals, there was no shortage of potential story lines. Would Caroline Wozniacki raise her game to the same heights she reached in Singapore last year? Could Petra Kvitova finally play her best at a big event? How would Finals rookies Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, and Kiki Bertens fare?
What about Elina Svitolina? She was one player that didn’t seem destined to generate much buzz. The 24-year-old Ukrainian was enduring a stretch of mediocrity that dated all the way back to the French Open. After trouncing Simona Halep in the Rome final, Svitolina had arrived in Paris as one of the favorites; but little did she, or anyone else, suspect that it was all going to be downhill from there for her in 2018. She lost early at Roland Garros, even earlier at Wimbledon—the first round, to be exact—and she hasn’t reached a semifinal since early August. Along the way, Svitolina split with her coach, Thierry Ascione.
As disappointing as her on-court performances were, what Svitolina had to hear and read when she came off court may have been even tougher to take. She had lost a substantial amount of weight through the early part of 2018, and social media had a lot to say about it. As Svitolina admitted in Singapore today, it was a difficult stretch, especially in a year when expectations for her had been so high—Grand Slam title high. But those early expectations only made her more determined to salvage what she could of 2018 in Singapore.
“For me, going into this tournament was very important mentally to bounce back, and you know, I had a really, really tough second part of the season,” Svitolina said today. “I was actually surprised, because I was very positive and just keep fighting.”
“I stopped with my coach, Thierry, and it was not easy. With all the things going on social media, with the opinions about my physique, it wasn’t easy.”
Svitolina showed up in Singapore looking stronger than she had at mid-season; lean but not overly thin. And she showed up with what appeared to be a more aggressive mindset—she was grunting loudly, and swinging with a forcefulness, a single-mindedness, and a controlled assertiveness that had been missing for the last six months. She opened by breaking a seven-match losing streak to Petra Kvitova, then followed that up with a three-set win over Karolina Pliskova, a player she had lost to in five of their previous seven meetings. Suddenly Svitolina’s resurrection was the story of Singapore.
“The period of six months I think after my bad performance at Roland Garros, and then continued few tournaments that I didn’t play my best tennis I think made me stronger,” said Svitolina, who credited a “mysterious man” for giving her good advice. “I just decided what I have do on court, off court, and that’s more clear now.”
Still, Svitolina’s two wins weren’t enough to qualify her for the semifinals. On Thursday, she had to win a set from the defending champion, Wozniacki; Judging by their last meeting, that wasn’t going to be easy; 12 months ago in Singapore, Wozniacki beat her 6-2, 6-0. When Wozniacki snuck away with the first set on Thursday, 7-5, and went up an early break in the second, it looked like Svitolina’s turnaround would go for naught.
But Svitolina had come too far not to keep fighting until the last point was lost. Throwing everything she had into every shot, she broke back, nosed ahead 6-5, and finally closed out Wozniacki—who was also playing for a spot in the semis—on her fifth set point. Svitolina’s eventual 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 win left her 3-0 in round-robin play, won her the White Group, and got her to her first semifinal at the WTA’s season-ender.
Afterward, she felt as if a weight—an on-court weight and an off-court weight—that had been growing for six months was off her shoulders.
“By knowing that I have to look only on my path and to don’t—there is a thousand opinions, a million opinions,” Svitolina said when she was asked what she had discovered about herself this season. “I just have to do my job and go on court. I’m trying to win every point. I’m not giving any free points.”
“Today I saw, you know, this challenge. I’m really, really happy the way I could handle it.”
In this season of WTA stories, Svitolina’s resurrection comes as a final-week surprise. But it also may be the most important and intriguing going into 2019.
*This Week on Tennis Channel PLUS 10/21*
ATP Vienna & Basel (10/22 –10/28)
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USTA Macon (10/23 – 10/28)
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