NEW YORK—At a time when the women’s game is overloaded with big hitters who knock the cover off the ball and obliterate their rivals with sheer force and power, Elina Svitolina is refreshing. Her game is all about depth and feel, consistency and continuity, variety and ball control. She thinks her way through matches, probing mercilessly, finding holes in the arsenals of her adversaries, making the most of her wide range of strengths.
In seven previous appearances at the US Open, Svitolina had never advanced beyond the fourth round. Moreover, she had not reached the semifinals at any major tournament prior to Wimbledon earlier in the summer. But now she is beginning to believe more on the big occasions. On Tuesday, the No. 5 seed brought down No. 16 seed Johanna Konta from Great Britain, 6-4, 6-4, with cool professionalism in the combined sunshine and shade on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and thus established herself as the first player—man or woman—to reach the penultimate round of the season’s last Grand Slam tournament.
In a variety of ways, Svitolina invited Konta to beat herself. Svitolina changed pace adroitly, altered her speeds and spins, moved her serve around, and sent some of her returns deliberately short and low while driving others with extraordinary depth. The guile in her game was the primary reason she cast aside Konta so comprehensively.
To be sure, despite her 0-4 career record against Svitolina, Konta approached this contesst in a reasonably good frame of mind after coming from behind to oust Karolina Pliskova in a three set, round-of-16 encounter. Konta had only beaten Pliskova once before, and she had played one of her best matches of the 2019 season to prevail in that battle on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
But the 24-year-old Svitolina is an entirely different kind of player from Pliskova. Her defense is superior. Her court coverage is decidedly better. Her court sense is beyond reproach. Across the board, Svitolina is a player Konta will always be hard pressed to beat.
The match started predictably, with four straight holds of serve. But then Svitolina persisted in a long fifth game on Konta’s serve. After two deuces, Konta pressed, netting a backhand down the line. On her second break point, Svitolina converted, taking her forehand return early and pressuring Konta into an error off the backhand. That service break gave Svitolina a 3-2 lead. She had a couple of game points for 4-2 but Konta rallied for 3-3 with one of her finest return games of the day.
That rally did not last. Although Konta poured in five consecutive first serves in the seventh game, she won only one point. Svitolina opened and closed that chapter with backhand passing shot winners, regaining the initiative, taking a 4-3 lead by giving nothing away and keeping Konta off balance repeatedly. Down break point in the eighth game, Svitolina served an ace down the T, and then came forward to provoke a passing shot error. Konta followed with a return of serve mistake, and so Svitolina moved to 5-3. Serving for the set two games later, Svitolina had to work hard. Konta saved a set point with a sparkling backhand drop-volley winner, yet Svitolina took the next two points on errant backhands from Konta.
The first set belonged to Svitolina 6-4, and then the second set unfolded identically. Both women held easily for 2-2, but then Svitolina made her move propitiously once more. An excellent return opened up an avenue for a forehand crosscourt winner behind Konta, and the British competitor erred on the next point, pulling a forehand wide. Svitolina was up a set and a break. She had two game points for 4-2 but Konta broke back for 3-3 with a gorgeous forehand drop shot.
As was the case in the opening set, Svitolina did not dwell on that disappointment. She broke back at love in the seventh game with a spectacular backhand passing shot winner down the line. Soon Svitolina held. She was ahead 5-3. Konta stubbornly cast aside two match points against her in the ninth game, forcing Svitolina to serve the match out. The No. 5 seed dropped the first point of the tenth game but proceeded to win four in a row. In an hour and forty minutes, she had come through in straight sets for a landmark moment in her career.
Svitolina made only 13 unforced errors while Konta had 35. That was the central factor in Svitolina’s victory. She played aggressively enough, but did not venture into reckless territory.
Putting everything in perspective after the match, Svitolina said, “I think all my career I have been going step by step. I was going very slowly. Still, I was quite consistent, I would say, but I had some tough matches in the round of 16 and quarterfinals before I started to win them. I think it’s been tough and painful losses sometimes, but I think they gave me this push, this confidence. It maybe helped me in some matches.”
Svitolina admitted that she did not anticipate finding a place in the semifinals of the Open on the eve of the event.
“I don’t think I was expecting going into the tournament that I’m going to make semis," she said. "I’m just talking it one match at a time, not rushing so much of the results or what should or could have happened.
"It’s a Grand Slam. There is a lot of pressure, lots of expectations from people, from media probably. But you also put lots of pressure on yourself. You have to just go out there, do your job and don’t think too much about what’s going in around you. Who handles it the best wins.”
Svitolina was asked about a potential semifinal against Serena Williams: “Definitely it’s a big challenge to play against her. I mean, doesn’t really matter who I’m going to play in a semifinal. It’s a challenge.”
It is up to Svitolina to meet that challenge head on, demand the best from herself, and be fully prepared for her Friday semifinal. This is a moment where she must move beyond herself into territory she has never explored before. It is time for Svitolina to be thinking about winning one of the majors, so why not make the breakthrough here in New York?
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