NEW YORK—Even on her best days, Elina Svitolina’s game isn’t ideally suited to face Serena Williams. Svitolina can’t match Serena’s power, the way Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka can; she can’t disrupt Serena’s rhythm, the way Roberta Vinci once did; and she can’t force her to hit an extra ball in every rally, the way Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber have in the last two Wimbledon finals. Svitolina is a solid counter-puncher who lets Serena get in the first punch. Which is never a good idea.
Making matters worse on Thursday, though, was the fact that Svitolina didn’t have one of her best days. Instead, for a player who has gradually been progressing at the majors, she had a surprisingly lackluster night. Svitolina couldn’t convert several chances in the opening games, which set an ominous tone. Things only got worse from there, as her feet turned to lead and she began to miss routine ground strokes. Svitolina was 0 for 6 on break points, and mustered just 11 winners against Serena’s 34.
There was a moment early on when the match looked as if it might go in a different, more competitive direction. At 3-1, Serena fell behind 0-40; it’s possible that a service break would have settled Svitolina and left Serena rattled. But we’ll never know, because Serena saved all three break points and held. The most unusual and important of them came at 15-40. Frustrated by the way she started the game, Serena had to let it out somehow, so she did something she almost never does: She barreled in behind her serve and batted away Svitolina’s return with a two-handed topspin volley winner. Serena never bothered to stop and split step; she just ran through the shot with maximum aggression, and it worked. She went up 4-1, the mini-crisis was averted, and the match was one-way traffic from there.
“I wanted to not get off to a slow start,” Serena said. “She’s such a good player, she’s made two straight semis [at the Slams].”
As for the serve and volley, she said, “Don’t expect that again.”
While Svitolina’s level dropped over the last set and a half, Serena’s rose considerably. She staked out a superior court position and swung freely on her ground strokes. But she also ran and defended well, and by the middle of the second set she was confident enough to use her drop shot. Serena’s night peaked at 3-1 in the second set, when she ran down a short ball and flipped a delicate forehand crosscourt for a passing shot winner. When she broke at love, her eventual 6-3, 6-1 win was signed, sealed, and as good as delivered.
“I think I didn’t start so bad,” Svitolina said. “First two games, I had the chances to break and to hold. Had the chances, but in the same time she played really, really focused and very precise in those two games.”
“On the important moment, she steps up, always steps up, always brings her best game.”
So far at this year’s Open, Serena has beaten Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-1, in 59 minutes, Wang Qiang, 6-0, 6-1, in 44 minutes, and now Svitolina in 70 minutes. That’s an impressively one-sided body of work, even for her. Now she’s back in another Grand Slam final, a place where she has struggled the last two years. If she struggles again, it won’t be for lack of momentum, form, or confidence. As Svitolina attested tonight, whatever defeats Serena has taken haven’t diminished the aura she projects across a net.
“You are playing in front of the best tennis player in the world,” Svitolina said. “If you don’t take it, she just grabs it and there’s no chance to take it back.”
Sooner or later, Serena is going to grab Grand Slam No. 24.
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