Elina Svitolina’s story at Wimbledon came to an agonizing end on Thursday as she lost her semifinal match against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in straight sets.
Svitolina, the Ukrainian who has become an icon of defiance since the Russian invasion in February 2022 — particularly during her contests at the French Open and Wimbledon — fell to Vondrousova, 6-3, 6-3, in an afternoon riddled with errors below the surface on center court.
For 10 days, Svitolina, who needed a wild card to enter the tournament, played tennis with a mixture of freedom and challenge that impressed the British fans, especially during her victory over 19th seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the fourth round, when she won the last set of a tie-break after Azarenka won the match. Two days later, Svitolina knocked out Poland’s Iga Swiatek, world number one and four-time Grand Slam champion, in another tense and emotional three-set victory.
She talked about how the war and being a new mother changed her approach to tennis and even made it better because she had a new perspective on the sport.
“I don’t see difficult situations as a disaster,” she said. “There are worse things in life. I’m just calmer.”
But then she faced Vondrousova, a talented and tricky left-hander who had nothing close to the resume of Swiatek and Azarenka — or Sofia Kenin or Venus Williams, two of Svitolina’s other victims in this tournament — but played if she did.
“I wouldn’t say I was very nervous,” a tearful Svitolina said after the match. “I had to find a better way to approach Marketa’s game style.”
Vondrousova, ranked world No. 1 as a junior and a French Open finalist in 2019, is developing a habit of playing spoiler. At the Tokyo Olympics, she knocked out Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the national champion and world star who lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony, and won a silver medal.
Against Svitolina, she showed every bit of skill she showed in her best matches, showcasing a varied attack that includes rolling forehands, wrists, volleys and leaning into the net to finish off points at every opportunity. Being left-handed also helps. It forces opponents to adapt to a different set of spins than the ones they normally encounter, and switch the direction of their attack if they want to backhand the ball into it.
I also got plenty of help from Svitolina, who within the first hour of the game seemed to have lost the ethereal sense of ball that had characterized her play throughout most of the tournament.
Swiatek said Svitolina, who had spent much of her maternity leave raising money for war relief in Ukraine, got the better of her by playing freer and bolder tennis than she had seen before.
“Sometimes she just let go of her hand and she played really fast,” said Swiatek.
This version of Svitolina only appeared briefly during the semi-finals. In the second set, she lost a set and 4–0, breaking Vondrousova’s serve twice for a chance to tie the set.
The crowd, desperately wanting to help swing the match in her favor, came back alive when Svitolina let out a whoop and fist pump and strode towards her chair for a changeup.
But as soon as I caught the momentum, I immediately put it back on. The fouls returned and her strikes didn’t seem to find the speed or accuracy of the previous match. When her last long ball had sailed, her chin fell to her chest and she went to the net to give Vondrousova a congratulatory hug.
“I speed up a bit,” Svitolina said. “I tried to resist and do my best. It didn’t happen.”
“She’s a fighter and a great person,” Vondrousova said of Svitolina. “I was insanely nervous. I was nervous the whole game.”
She didn’t play like that, and now she has a Saturday date at the Wimbledon final.