WIMBLEDON, England – If the high-water mark for adulation among non-Brits on Centre Court at Wimbledon is Roger Federer, the All England Club might have found its No. 2 this week.
Peals of applause undulated throughout the stadium Tuesday as everyone stood in unison when Iga Swiatek hit a forehand into the net. Elina Svitolina, standing on the opposite baseline, registered at least three different reactions at the moment of her 7-5, 6-7 (7-5), 6-2 quarterfinal win. She sank to her knees in perhaps relief, covered her face with her hands in perhaps disbelief, and when she rose, she laughed and laughed. Her laughter felt rare after hearing her speak for months about the Russian invasion of her homeland, Ukraine, and it seemed to illuminate the court until – no, that was just the roof opening at the conclusion of a rainy afternoon letting the bright light in. The coincidence felt meaningful anyway, and the applause continued as a collective expression of pride.
She then earned more of the crowd’s approval with an answer about what she’d be doing after the match.
“Well first of all,” she said, “I’m gonna have a beer, probably.”
The crowd here at Wimbledon has seemed to adopt Svitolina as nearly one of their own, just as the French did at Roland Garros. She’s a worthy choice as a 28-year-old Ukrainian who has used her platform to fundraise and speak out tirelessly on behalf of her country. She is also a new mother, eight months removed from giving birth and four months into a career comeback.
And, care or don’t about geopolitics and the plight of women in the workforce, it’s hard not to appreciate that screaming backhand down the line.
Of all of Svitolina’s admirable qualities, her victory over world No. 1 Swiatek on Tuesday highlighted the fact that her tennis might be the best it’s ever been right now. That’s a feat, given that she is a former world No. 3 who has reached two Grand Slam semifinals before, both in 2019, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
She needed to be at her peak to mow through such a challenging draw.
In part because she received a wild card into the tournament, Svitolina has faced four former Grand Slam champions thus far – she defeated Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka and Swiatek. She is the first player to face that many former major champions since Sara Errani at the French Open in 2012 and the fourth wild card to reach a Grand Slam semifinal in the Open era, which began in 1968.
She’ll finally break that pattern against world No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova, the 2019 French Open finalist who upset Jessica Pegula 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 earlier Tuesday with the type of game that gives her opponents nightmares: Pegula led 4-1 in the third before Vondrousova’s creative shot-making and variety wrong-footed the American.
Svitolina owns a 3-2 record against the Czech, but history has meant little throughout Svitolina’s run here. She’s playing differently, something both Swiatek and Svitolina’s previous opponent, Azarenka, pointed out.
She won 82% of points on her first serve Tuesday, broke Swiatek six times and picked on her forehand, producing 14 errors with bold groundstrokes.
“I didn’t remember that she was changing rhythm so much in terms of playing these faster shots sometimes,” Swiatek said. “But I totally get that, why she’s doing that. It totally makes sense. You have to have guts if you want to win these matches.”
Svitolina took her comeback as an opportunity to start fresh, and by fresh, she meant spending more time as the aggressor on court. She has a new team around her and benefited from spending more time crafting a slightly new style. Usually when a player begins working with a new coach there are only a few rushed weeks between the end of the season and the start of the Australian Open to tweak things. Because she was coming out of maternity leave, Svitolina got to take things slowly, month by month.
That combined with the life experiences she collected over the past year to produce a woman who plays more freely, without fear. She’s served the second-most aces this tournament after world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka with 28.
“I think it’s mixture of everything. Also I think war made me stronger and also made me, like, mentally stronger. Mentally I don’t take difficult situations as like a disaster, you know? There are worse things in life. I’m just more calmer,” Svitolina said. “I think also, because I’m just started to play again, I have different pressures. Of course, I want to win. I have this motivation, like huge motivation, to come back to the top. But I think having a child, and war, made me a different person. I look at the things a bit differently.”
Aside from more aggressive tactics, Svitolina is clearly fiercely motivated during her matches. She chases down the extra shot nearly without fail and grunts with effort on her groundstrokes like she’s pushing a boulder. She feels winning matches is a way she can bring a small moment of relief to Ukrainians supporting her back home. After her triumph over Azarenka, whose home country Belarus is an ally of Russia’s, Svitolina saw videos of children in Ukraine watching the match on phones and cheering her on.
“This really makes my heart melt seeing this,” she said. “Just happy I could bring little happiness to people of Ukraine.”
She remarked on court Tuesday that if someone had told her months ago she would be in the Wimbledon semifinals after beating the world No. 1 she would have told them they are crazy, which is exactly what she told the reporter who asked if she believed she could win the championship here Saturday.
More seriously, Svitolina doesn’t want to get ahead of herself. Her husband, the tennis player Gael Monfils, won’t be traveling with their daughter Skai to watch Svitolina compete the rest of the way in part because Svitolina doesn’t want to change anything she’s been doing. She would hardly entertain questions about her playing in the final.
“It seems very close, but it’s very far from this,” she said.
One thing she would admit is that she’s happy with what she’s done thus far, felling four Grand Slam champions, “the players who know how to win,” she said, “how to play pressure moments.”
Svitolina said she was proud of herself, and for that, she counts as one of a long and growing list.