It’s time to consider whether having a baby, and spending a year away from the sport to raise money to help her compatriots back home in Ukraine, has made Elina Svitolina a better tennis player.
She says they did, and there is no reason not to believe her.
The unlikely Svitolina’s run at Wimbledon took off in impressive style on Tuesday. Two days after Svitolina, a new mom who needed a wild card to take part in the tournament, defeated former world number one Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in an emotional and dramatic victory, Svitolina beat current world number one Ija Swiatek.
Svitolina, who plays with pluck, toughness and a higher aim, matches Swiatek’s powerful shot to put, then some, on the sport’s most hallowed pitches, sending joy to the crowd that’s been with her since her first shot. The heroism she thought would end for her now.
When the match ended, Svitolina put her hand to her face, hugged Swiatek from across the net and then raised her arms to the crowd in a shrug of disbelief.
“I don’t know what’s going on right now,” Svitolina told them moments later.
Some things are hard to explain.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine 18 months ago, Svitolina announced that she was taking a break from professional tennis as she was pregnant with her first child with husband, Gael Monfils, a professional tour professional and tennis showman from France.
Tennis was hardly a priority then anyway. Her pregnancy was high on the list, as was her fundraising for war relief efforts in her home country. Her foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars since the start of the war.
In October, she and Monfils announced the birth of their daughter, Skye. Not long after that, Svitolina began training and practicing for her return to the WTA Tour, in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
It didn’t go well at first, losing six of her first seven matches, but Svitolina – an agile and deceptively strong player who was ranked third in the world as recently as 2019 – slowly began to regain her feel on the ball and the competition.
She made it clear, especially during the French Open in Paris, that tennis is no longer about money or ranking points. It was about trying to bring some joy to the people of Ukraine.
She did a lot of that as she made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. However, she only made it past the second round there twice in eight attempts and had not contested the turf since 2021 until last month. Her hopes were so low that she bought tickets to Harry Styles’ concert last week, assuming they would be free.
She wasn’t, and after her win over Swiatek on Tuesday, she said she didn’t think she’d be taking the pop star to his show to invite her to a concert anytime soon.
“It was so cool of him,” she said of Styles’ offer. “I hope to go one day.”
And she will have to wait at least until after her semi-final match on Thursday against Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, who beat American Jessica Pegula in three sets. Victory over Vondrousova could lead to a finals showdown with a player from Belarus (Aryna Sabalenka) or with defending champion Elena Rybakina, who grew up in Russia but represents Kazakhstan. Sabalenka and Rybakina play their quarter-final matches on Wednesday and are heavy favourites.
That’s on the way, and will certainly create similar tension as that in Svitolina’s fourth-round win over Azarenka. Players from Russia and Belarus were banned from playing in the tournament last year, and while they were met mostly warmly, Svitolina and the other players from Ukraine refused to shake hands with players from those countries.
Azarenka was booed by the court – unfairly, Svitolina said – after Svitolina hit her on Sunday, though Azarenka gave Svitolina the thumbs up after the last point. Last year, Azarenka offered to play for a charity fundraiser for war relief efforts, despite players from Ukraine asking her not to. But the boos still rained down.
Swatek, who is from Poland and a vocal critic of the invasion, has done more than any player not from Ukraine to help with war relief efforts.
But there was no shortage of healthy tension in Tuesday’s game. Swiatek, a four-time Grand Slam champion, seemed to be in control early on and even served the first set at 5-4. Then she missed a series of tentative and wild forehands and served first. Svitolina continued her tight wire shots, clearing the net by just inches, over and over for the rest of the afternoon.
She won 16 out of 18 points in the first set. With the roof closed with rain on the way, a panicked Swiatek headed to the corner of the court, begging her team for answers.
“I felt like I was making pretty much the same mistakes,” said Swiatek. “I wanted some advice, what they think I should really focus on. Sometimes when something isn’t working it’s hard to find a reason because there could be several reasons.”
The biggest reason of all was Svitolina, who later said she was playing with a different kind of inspiration. She had spent parts of the past two days watching videos of her kids in Ukraine watching her matches on their phones. She knows what her victories mean and where they fit into the grand scheme of things.
It all has power.
“The war made me stronger and stronger mentally too,” she said. “I don’t view difficult situations as a disaster, you know? There are worse things in life. I’m just a little calmer.”
No doubt: She wants to win so badly, but her experience with pressure has changed her.
“I look at things a little differently,” she said.
After she leaves court, she makes a FaceTime call to Monfils, who — along with her mother and his mother — is taking care of their daughter in one of their homes. She said Skye didn’t talk to her much. He distracted her with a serving of ice cream.
Can she win this tournament and the biggest prize ever?
She insisted, as she did after the Azarenka match, that she wasn’t supposed to go that far. She wouldn’t let her husband come, because he’s not here yet, and she’s not messing with her routine now. Who needs it anyway, when she has another goal and another force, especially against those opponents from Russia and Belarus?
“Every time I play against them, it’s a great drive and a great responsibility,” she said. “At the moment, it is very, very far away. It seems very close, but it is very far from this.”