A fan in the center court carried the Ukrainian flag. Another shouted, “We love you, Elena.” The Ukrainian ambassador was there too, cheering alongside fans from Britain, the US, Uganda, Bulgaria and more for Elina Svitolina, the emotional uncrowned champion at Wimbledon 2023.
In the end, however, the pressure of carrying her nation’s and Wimbledon Nation’s hopes weakened her. Despite the crowd’s attempts to boost her spirit, Svitolina was unable to overcome Marketa Vondrousova, the 42nd-ranked player in the world, who she beat in straight sets on Thursday, leaving a palpable void in the tournament.
“It’s a big responsibility, a lot of stress,” Svitolina admitted after the match. “I try to balance it out as best I can. But, yeah, sometimes it can get a little too much.”
Svitolina, who has been the flag bearer for Ukraine and for new mothers around the world, planned to leave Britain on Friday to reunite with her daughter and family. But after her victory at Wimbledon, she will continue to be active through the summer and beyond, bringing more attention to her twin cause.
“What you’re doing is beautiful in many ways,” said Phuma Yeni, a social care worker from London. “Everyone supports her because she is so brave.”
During its semifinal loss, fans fell silent atop Henman Hill, the hill adjacent to Stadium 1 where fans gather to watch games on a giant video screen. They cheered and applauded when Svitolina put in a good performance, but it became clear early on that she was in for a desperate fight, and a gloomy cloud of gloom descended over the tennis grand prix.
“It’s very sad,” said Valya Ivanova, a civil servant and tennis fan from London, via Bulgaria, who usually supports Novak Djokovic. “She has a beautiful story, and everyone wanted her to win. Now, you can hear, she’s just silent.”
Svitolina has become a beacon to many people in her country and abroad for her outspoken support for Ukraine’s efforts to fight the Russian invasion. She used her fame, organizing tennis events and other activities to raise money for the relief effort, and making public statements denouncing the invasion. She also drew attention to the case by refusing to shake hands with players from Russia and Belarus – as is customary after every match. The latter country provided support for the invasion.
Svitolina said she felt the crowd’s support throughout her six matches here, and thanked the tennis fans who came to watch her in person and the millions of others watching on television from her home country and around the world. She specifically thanked the British people and government for their strong support for Ukraine since the 2022 invasion, in providing both military assistance and sanctuary to refugees.
“I am really grateful to the fans who supported me, being there for me, and all the Ukrainians as well,” said Svitolina. “They support us a lot in different ways, to the many Ukrainians who got here when the war started. Really grateful to all the people for supporting us at different levels.”
Wimbledon, which prevented Russian and Belarusian players from participating last year, acquiesced this year and allowed them to play, but it does not recognize the countries they represent. Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador, watched Svitolina play from the Royal Box on Thursday, and was unaware of this until her post-match press conference.
Since the start of the tournament, the All England Club has provided tickets, transportation and food to more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees. The club would have likely done so even if Svitolina had not been scrambling to reach the semi-finals, but her success shed more light on the circumstances.
“It’s the story of the tournament,” said Sarah Sirwanga, a tennis fan from London who watched the match with her daughter Zoe. “Everything you do has been so inspiring.”
Many fans have also been inspired by Svitolina’s ability to play well as a new mom. In October, she gave birth to a girl, Sky, and returned to the tennis tour in April. Her husband, professional tennis player Gaël Monfils, was home with the baby, along with the couple’s mothers. Svitolina has mostly worked alone here to charm and captivate fans.
Sirwanga, an executive, has two children, and was able to take six months off to care for them after they were both born. Then she went back to work. She tried to imagine the challenges Svitolina faced returning so soon and leaving her baby behind on her long run here.
“Your body can change, your emotions run wild, and you don’t know what’s coming next sometimes,” Sirwanga said. “To have all of that, plus play for your country the way it is, it’s amazing. Simply brilliant.”
Over the next several weeks, on hard courts across North America, leading up to the US Open, Svitolina will try to build on her success and potentially turn it into her first Grand Slam event final.
Before that, she was looking forward to the one thing she knew would cheer her up: seeing her daughter again. As tears welled up in her eyes during her excruciating post-match press conference, a smile broke out.
“That would be the best part,” she said.