In recent years, we’ve seen players like Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, and Maria Sharapova cap triumphant, breakthrough seasons by walking away with the title at the WTA Finals. But Elina Svitolina’s championship run in Singapore this week was something different. It was the opposite, really: She wanted to salvage what she could of a breakthrough season that had gone puzzlingly wrong.
“For me, going into this tournament was very important mentally to bounce back,” Svitolina said on Thursday. “You know, I had a really, really tough second part of the season.”
After winning three tournaments early in 2018, and routing world No. 1 Simona Halep in the Rome final in May, the 24-year-old Ukrainian had hit a wall, physically and mentally. Over the second half of the season, she crashed out early at the last three majors, reached just one semifinal overall, and watched as younger players like Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka won Slams and grabbed headlines. Svitolina’s spot in Singapore wasn’t guaranteed until late in the fall, and few expected much from her when she arrived there.
Even worse, when Svitolina wasn’t playing tennis, she was hearing from online critics. She lost a significant amount of weight early in 2018, a fact that became—unfortunately, predictably—fodder for social-media chatter. As Svitolina put it this week, “There’s a thousand opinions, a million opinions.”
“I stopped with my coach, Thierry, and it was not easy,” Svitolina said of her September break-up with the man who had helped her reach the Top 5, Thierry Ascione. “With all the things going on social media, with the opinions about my physique, it wasn’t easy.”
What was easy to see right away in Singapore was that Svitolina had come there with the intention of putting the last five months behind her. She looked stronger, her grunt was louder, and she was hitting the ball with a single-mindedness that had largely been missing since May. Just as important, she was also competing with a sense of single-mindedness. There was a hopeful desperation to Svitolina’s body language at this event, and it showed in her results.
She opened the week with her first win over Petra Kvitova after seven straight defeats. She followed that with just her third win in eight tries against Karolina Pliskova. She out-fought defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in a win-or-go-home shootout. She edged Kiki Bertens in a three-set slugfest in the semifinals. And she closed with a patient, convincing comeback win, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, over Sloane Stephens for the biggest title of her career.
Before the final, I wrote that this contest would pit Stephens’ cool control against Svitolina’s redemptive resolve. In the end, it was Svitolina’s emotion, her stubbornness, her desire to redeem her season, and her willingness to do the hard baseline work needed to break down Stephens that made the difference. After dozens of grueling, entertaining rallies, Sloane finally couldn’t match Svitolina’s desire.
Unfortunately for Stephens, the Singapore final unfolded much like her French Open final against Halep had.
In both cases, Stephens’ blend of consistency and weight of shot—her topspin really got up and spun away from her opponents on the Singapore surface—was impossible for either Svitolina or Halep to hit through in the early going. In both cases, Stephens won the first set with ease, before letting her nerves slow her momentum midway through the second set. In both cases, when Sloane hesitated, her opponent dug in her heels.
Much like Halep in Paris, Svitolina stopped trying to the ball past Stephens, and instead hit it directly at her. In doing so, Svitolina took away one of Stephens’ strengths, her ability to defend and counter-punch while she’s on the run; she isn’t as comfortable or effective hitting from a stationary position. Instead, it was Svitolina who grew more comfortable as she worked the rallies over the last two sets.
“It’s amazing, I’m very, very pleased with my performance this week,” Svitolina told BT Sport afterward. “There were definitely nerves, but I was just trying to fight for every ball, and I think that’s what made the difference in the end. I refused to give away free points.”
Stephens walks away from Singapore the same way she walked away from Paris: Knowing that her game is difficult for anyone to counter, and knowing that once she settles into an event, there’s no limit to how far she can go. But she also walks away knowing that, when her opponent raised her level in the final, she didn’t have an answer. She couldn’t find another gear against Halep or Svitolina. But Stephens also must know that, with her speed and ball-striking skills, that gear exists. Whether Sloane can find it or not on the big stages will be one of the intriguing WTA stories of 2019.
What does this win mean for Svitolina as we look to 2019? Recent Singapore history renders a split verdict: In 2017, Dominika Cibulkova also recorded the biggest win of her career at the WTA Finals, but she has largely been a non-factor since. In 2018, though, Wozniacki used her title run in Singapore as a springboard to her first Slam win, three months later at the Australian Open. Those are footsteps that Svitolina, who has yet to play her best at the majors, wants to follow.
“I’m very pleased with my week here,” she said. “I have proven a lot of things to myself, that I can play well.”
Whatever happens to Svitolina next year, she has shown that she can bounce back from adversity, and use it as motivational fuel. Over the course of one brilliant, whirlwind week, she made 2018 into the breakthrough season it was supposed to be all along.