After almost three hours of understanding her role and executing a calculated game plan to perfection, Elina Svitolina was suddenly at a loss to explain what she had achieved. In stunning the world No 1 Iga Swiatek to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals, the Ukrainian wildcard, who only returned to tennis three months ago after becoming a mother, continued her fairytale comeback run in a story that is becoming bigger than the tournament. It could become greater still.
There will be no overshadowing this. After knocking out Victoria Azarenka in the previous round, delivering a victory for Ukraine against Belarus in a three-set thriller that was dominated afterwards by the Wimbledon crowd booing Azarenka off the court, Svitolina produced an even stronger performance against Swiatek. It’s a seismic shock, delivered by a wildcard with nothing to lose and who no longer sees tennis as the most important thing in her life.
But that, perhaps, is the explanation behind Svitolina’s remarkable run. The 28-year-old is a former world No 3 and reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2019, but was often unable to produce her best form at the grand slams earlier in her career. Now, and only months after giving birth to her daughter Skai, Svitolina is performing better than ever while playing for something bigger than herself. She is representing a country at war and bringing hope to a nation torn apart by Russian invasion.
At Wimbledon, the returning presence of players from Russia and Belarus and the noise that brings is a constant reminder of what Svitolina is fighting for. But the Ukrainian understands and has been transformed by the responsibility and opportunity tennis has given her. After childbirth, she returned to the court and drastically changed her game. With no time to lose, she suddenly became an aggressive player and developed a massive forehand. It was a response to how her life had changed, and how the world has as well.
“I think war made me stronger,” Svitolina said. “Mentally I don't take difficult situations as like a disaster. There are worse things in life. 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.”
There is no question who the favourite among Wimbledon fans is now. Svitolina’s run to the French Open quarter-finals last month captured the imagination. At Roland Garros, with her husband Gael Monfils watching on, she was taken in by the French crowd and celebrated as a home player. The same thing is now happening at the All England Club. On Centre Court. Svitolina was roared over the finish line. The support she received was powerful and disrupted Swiatek, resulting in the most muddled of performances from the 22-year-old.
Back in Ukraine, Svitolina’s run at Wimbledon is headline news. The country stops to watch her play, children huddling around phones, bringing some light into the darkness. “I know that lots of people back in Ukraine are watching,” Svitolina said. “I'm happy I can bring little happiness to their life.” She was inspired by the opportunity to give Ukrainians a moment of celebration in difficult times. “I think she played with more freedom and more guts,” said Swiatek. “I told her on the net that I hope she win this tournament.”
Svitolina’s reinvented game has similarities with Swiatek’s, characterised by tidy footwork and early forehands struck as hard as possible cross court. But there were moments early on where it felt like a mismatch and as Swiatek made an impressive start it looked like a step too far for Svitolina on her return. Then the crowd responded, willing Svitolina to dig in on every point and baseline rally. Gradually, it led to the most improbable implosion from the world No 1.
After being up a break in the opening set, Svitolina identified Swiatek’s second serve as a particularly vulnerable weakness. When the accuracy of Swiatek’s first serve plummeted, Svitolina jumped on the returns while showing great strength and willing defence on the baseline, extending the points while taking time away from Swiatek’s explosive weapon.
It sparked a flurry of errors from Swiatek’s racket, with the match turning spectacularly. From Swiatek leading 0-30 on the Ukrainian’s serve at 3-5, Svitolina won 16 of the next 18 points to win the set. The world No 1 ended up winning just one point out of 12 on her second serve in the first set. Swiatek was hurried, stressed, and unable to keep the ball in play. Svitolina raised her fist and stood a set away.
The upset loomed, but Swiatek responded to turn the match into a thriller. With rain about to arrive, the roof closed and the Pole composed herself after venting at her mental coach, Daria Abramowicz, during the changeover. Swiatek sat, head down inside a book, before rediscovering her backhand to force the second-set tiebreak as both players found their best level for the first time in the match.
In the tiebreak, Svitolina jumped into a 4-1 lead but Swiatek took a brave, all-or-nothing approach to produce her best winners of the match, building off deep, accurate returns to fire an unstoppable forehand into the corner and then an exceptional backhand crosscourt to reach set point. Svitolina’s backhand drifted over the baseline and there was a stunned silence as the challenge confirmed it was long.
With Swiatek losing her head in the first set and both players battling it out in the second, the third was all about Svitolina and the level she found. Svitolina handled Swiatek superbly in the decider, raising her game to unlock an awesome dominance on both her serve and return: she won 15 of her 18 first-serve points while breaking Swiatek twice with aggressive, arrowed returns.
As Swiatek returned into the net on the third match point, Svitolina fell to her knees. Swiatek, who wears a blue and yellow ribbon on her cap and has been one of the most prominent supporters of Ukrainian players, met her at the net and told her to go on and win the tournament.
A title that would have been beyond Svitolina’s wildest imagination is now two matches away and she will play Marketa Vondrousova, a beatable opponent and world No 42, in the semi-finals. With Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed, still in the other half of the draw, this Wimbledon comeback story could become more spectacular still.
Djokovic passes Rublev test to equal Federer semi-final record
Novak Djokovic continued his Wimbledon defence as he saw off the challenge of Andrey Rublev to reach the semi-finals, equalling a Roger Federer record in the process. Djokovic responded brilliantly to losing the opening set against Rublev, the seventh seed, as the defending champion clinched an entertaining 4-6 6-1 6-4 6-4 win. In doing so, the No 2 seed reached the 46th grand slam semi-final of his career, moving level with Federer’s all-time record.
Djokovic is attempting to equal another Federer record by winning his eighth Wimbledon title this week, and he will now face a final-four rematch with Jannik Sinner, who led the Serbian by two sets in the quarter-finals last year before the 23-time grand slam winner produced a roaring comeback. Sinner, the eighth seed, is through to the first semi-final of his career after a 6-4 3-6 6-2 6-2 win over Roman Safiullin. The 21-year-old is the youngest man to reach a Wimbledon semi-final since 2007, a record that will be broken on Wednesday when Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune meet for a place in the last four on the other side of the draw.
Elsewhere, Marketa Vondrousova produced a stunning comeback win over world No 4 Jessica Pegula to set up a semi-final against Elina Svitolina. Vondrousova was trailing by a break in the deciding set before play was suspended to allow the Court One roof to close, but emerged to seal a 6-4 2-6 6-4 victory. The 2019 French Open finalist, who is enjoying her best run at the All England Club, revealed afterwards that a phone call and impromptu pep talk with her husband during the stoppage had helped her to turn the match around.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies