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The Self-Improvement of Elina Svitolina: how the Ukrainian became a US Open contender in 90 days
A former world No. 3, Svitolina made the most of her time away from tennis to revamp her game and employ a more aggressive style that has made her comeback one of the stories of the season.
Published Sep 01, 2023
FLASHBACK: Svitolina discussed the emotional impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine at Wimbledon.
NEW YORK—The phrase “dance with the one you brought” has been used to describe tennis players who fixate on turning weaknesses into strengths. It is rooted in the idea that the sport’s ten-and-a-half calendar renders the prospect of major improvements nigh impossible—lest they miss valuable weeks of important competition.
It is time that Elina Svitolina, this adage-busting athlete, wish she had taken sooner.
“I always was looking to improve my serve, to improve the power on my shots, to strike the ball more cleanly, some technical things on my forehand,” she told me in press on Thursday.
Svitolina is speaking after her latest tour de force performance at a major tournament, a three-set comeback to defeat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to reach the third round of the 2023 US Open. A former world No. 3, Svitolina was often a fixture of a Grand Slam’s latter stages but, with her more defense-oriented game, was rarely considered a threat in the face of more aggressive opposition.
With that context, her return to tennis after giving birth to daughter Skaï has been nothing short of a metamorphosis. Playing with reckless abandon for her war-torn country, she has been an inspiration with each match she plays, reaching the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and the semifinals of Wimbledon, defeating world No. 1 Iga Swiatek at the latter.
At her last US Open before going on maternity leave two years ago, she struck 28 winners and 31 unforced errors through a heartbreaking quarterfinal defeat to eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez, herself hardly an imposing presence, but one who nonetheless dictated play to the dismay of the more experienced Ukrainian. When the moment seemed to ask the rigidly risk-averse Svitolina, “Aren’t you tired?” she defiantly stayed the course and sent her opponent into the winner’s circle.
Sometimes you need to take step back to take time for yourself, to stay at home, to rest, mentally reset and work again, then go. Elina Svitolina
A much more ruthless Svitolina was on court to play Pavlyuchenkova. She took the racquet out of the powerful Russian’s hand for large swaths of the match, ending with a total 41 winners in just under three hours.
And still, Svitolina wasn’t satisfied.
“I have high standards,” she smiled when called on her middling assessment of what may yet be one of the best matches of the tournament.
Though her perfectionism has never been in question, Svitolina reveals what had long been missing was time, time she finally got when she methodically mapped out her comeback alongside new coach Raemon Sluiter.
“I had three months starting from January until my first match where we were just working on my game,” she said of Sluiter, a former ATP player who guided Kiki Bertens to a Top 4 ranking and nine of her 10 WTA titles.
“He explains very easy. It almost feels like he's not doing anything, but this is like, in a way, really natural and very good. I was just analyzing, trying to think what he really brought into my game. In the end it really came naturally.”
Not unlike the new and improved Coco Gauff, Svitolina, who married fellow player Gaël Monfils in 2021, is seeing her opportunities to be aggressive with impressive clarity, one of the most difficult skills for a defensive player to learn. Apart from a lone hiccup at the finish line—a tension-filled 63mph second serve on her first match point—Svitolina is hitting through her nerves, flattening her forehand and using her athleticism to rush the net rather than scramble behind the baseline.
Playing Fernandez in 2021, a tentative volley from Svitolina invited her young challenger set up match points in the final-set tiebreaker with a roaring passing shot. In a full-circle display on Louis Armstrong Stadium, she forced the issue with Pavlyuchenkova. In the match’s penultimate point, she swung a forehand volley into the open court, engineering a match point she promptly converted with an ace.
All this because the 28-year-old finally allowed herself a few months to breathe.
“Many times during my career, before the pregnancy, I had no time to work on my game because the season is very long,” she explains. “Even when there are no WTA tournaments, you have exhibitions, you have different kind of things happening. You're not really resting. You're not really working on your game. You're all the time traveling.
“I would definitely recommend the juniors or players coming back after injury to not rush so much, because it really helped me.”
Now that she sees what 90 days made possible, her high standards have only elevated, encouraging the No. 26 seed to dedicate further training blocs to even further close the gap between contender and champion.
“I try to take time when I can right now, and I'm going to see what I'm going to do the rest of the season right now. But it's important to be healthy, to work on the game, and be fresh mentally.
“Sometimes you need to take step back to take time for yourself, to stay at home, to rest, mentally reset and work again, then go.”