Elina Svitolina discovers belief at the end of tunnel as she turns dismal year around with season-ending WTA Finals title

The on-court grunt has taken on a life of its own in tennis. Some find it amusing. Others call it annoying. Still, others think it’s a form of cheating. But like it or hate it or be indifferent to it, everyone definitely has an opinion on it. And that opinion almost never has anything to do with the actual tennis being played.

But Elina Svitolina’s grunts are different. All through the WTA Finals in Singapore, Svitolina kept accompanying her shots with big, throaty cries, and everyone was convinced that the tennis she was playing was directly related to the noise she was making.

 Elina Svitolina discovers belief at the end of tunnel as she turns dismal year around with season-ending WTA Finals title

Elina Svitolina defeated Sloane Stephens to win WTA Finals title on Sunday. AFP

She was putting effort into her shots; a lot of it. There was pain in her grunts, even suffering. She sounded like she wanted to be anywhere but on the court, but would bludgeon anyone who so much as suggested that; she would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to get her away from the court.

It almost felt like she wanted to prove a point to the world, even if it meant giving up her life for it. Does that sound too dramatic? It wouldn’t if you heard everything that Svitolina had to say about her body and health in the lead-up to the tournament. Or if you saw the kind of theatre that almost every one of her matches this week produced.

The Ukranian lost a bit of weight mid-way through the year, which for some reason became the subject of intense scrutiny among both the fans and the media. She was constantly peppered with questions about her appearance, and Twitter couldn’t stop having meltdowns about how this change was so unhealthy and so detrimental to her game.

The woman herself has never shied away from the topic. In August, ahead of the Cincinnati Masters, she addressed the elephant in the room and asserted that the weight loss was actually helping her game.

“We all can see the difference and everyone has their opinion on anything. We’re trying different things with my team,” she declared back then. “I think I’m on the right path now already. I’ve been playing really well, I beat good players, I’m feeling much, much better now, on the court, off the court.”

The results said otherwise though. After destroying Simona Halep to win the Rome title, Svitolina failed to reach the final in her next nine tournaments. In three of those, she lost in her very first match. It was a torrid run by any standard, and the timing couldn’t have been more ominous: she had stopped winning at almost the exact same time that she had started losing weight.

The fourth-round loss to Anastasija Sevastova at the US Open, where she got bagelled in the deciding set, was the last straw. She parted ways with her coach of two years, Thierry Ascione, in the immediate aftermath of the match, highlighting the severity of her slump. She also started expressing doubts about the effect of her weight loss on her game, saying that there were a few things she had to “sit down with her team and think about”.

“I think physically I have to get much stronger since, yeah, there has been a change in my body…playing the same way as I was playing last year, I know my body is not allowing me to show my best. I have to think what I have to do differently,” she said in early September.

But she couldn’t possibly have anticipated that things were about to go from bad to worse. She proceeded to lose her next two matches — in Wuhan and Beijing — and failed to go beyond the quarter-finals in the lowly Hong Kong event. Her relationship with new coach Nick Saviano had gotten off to a rocky start, and had made everyone start wondering whether the change in her physique had permanently damaged her tennis career. Needless to say, nobody gave her much of a chance to win the title in Singapore.

Were we looking in the wrong place though? Svitolina has always had a bit of a meat-and-potatoes game, with no standout weapon. She had made it work well the past couple of years, winning (mid-level) titles for fun, but it was unclear how far she would go with that strategy and how long it would be before she suddenly, well, stopped winning.

For much of 2018, Svitolina has been neither here nor there. She is a good counterpuncher, but hasn’t been defending as well as, say, Angelique Kerber or Sloane Stephens. She can bring the heat with her forehand, but hasn’t been using it to control points as authoritatively as, say, Naomi Osaka or Petra Kvitova.

In this era of ever-changing landscapes and intensely volatile champions, was Svitolina going to be the one unfortunate constant? Was she going to be eternally stuck in a rut that wouldn’t allow her to ever rise above the crowd, or establish herself as a contender for the throne?

That should always have been the question. Not whether her weight loss was unhealthy, not whether the coaching change was a knee-jerk reaction, but whether she had it in her to take her game to the next level and truly fight for the biggest prizes.

And we have our answer now. Svitolina still looked reed-thin in Singapore, but she showed heft in the only area that mattered: outplaying and outlasting her opponents.

She hasn’t dramatically changed her game, but she has started showing a greater urgency to take the initiative on the big points. All of last week, she went for her shots more frequently, punctuating each forceful strike with a loud grunt. She made a few errors, yes, but she also made it clear to everyone that she wasn’t going to shrink from the challenge.

The end of her second set against Caroline Wozniacki was probably the most dramatic and pivotal passage of the tournament, and Svitolina chose that exact moment to show off her newfound toughness. She needed to win that set to qualify for the semi-final, and win it she did, by stretching herself to her limit, both physically and mentally.

Those 15 minutes of play had a bit of everything. There were wild misses on second serve returns and forehands dumped tamely into the net, but there were also glorious running backhand passes and incredibly angled volley winners. Svitolina threw it all out on the court, putting more into her shots than she ever had before, and her reward was a fully deserved place in the semi-finals.

“With all the things going on social media, with the opinions about my physique, it wasn’t easy,” she said after the match, which she ended up winning in the third set. “I think I’m getting mentally tough. That’s what I have been working on really hard,” she added.

“The period of six months after my bad performance at Roland Garros and then continued few tournaments that I didn’t play my best tennis I think made me stronger. I just decided what I have to do on court, off court, and that’s more clear now.”

That sounded a bit like PR-speak at the time, but in retrospect, it seems she was spot-on with her self-assessment. These last six months certainly seem to have made her stronger — to the point that she’s even started making mid-match adjustments to turn around seemingly hopeless causes.

In the final against Sloane Stephens, she never got down on herself despite staring at the wrong end of the barrel for nearly half the match. When the American was calmly hitting her smooth groundstrokes and getting literally everything back in play, Svitolina seemed destined to fall short of her big breakthrough yet again. But the Ukrainian never stopped believing, and by the start of the second set she had figured out what she needed to do: dial down on her aggression, and make Stephens play out of her comfort zone.

She still looked to hammer her forehand into the corners, but was now putting a little more spin on them to extend the points. She started throwing in surprise backhand slices and net approaches, and hitting sharply-angled passes instead of the predictable down-the-line ones.

She also seemed to have discovered, just in the nick of time, that the crowd can be used as a source of energy. Normally Stephens is the one who tries to rev up the crowd with her celebrations; you almost think she needs that extra bit of energy considering how lackadaisical her game looks most of the time. But in the second and third sets yesterday, it was Svitolina who was throwing in exaggerated fist-pumps and almighty screams after winning big points. She seemed eager to show the crowd that she wanted the win more badly than anyone else in the world. And she probably did want it more badly than anyone else in the world.

This is just the start of Svitolina’s journey to the next level. She still hasn’t made it big on the Grand Slam stage, and as we all know Major wins are an indispensable feature of any modern great’s CV. But this week has shown that she won’t always go into her shell on the biggest of stages. It has shown that when the time comes, she can grunt loud enough, hit hard enough, and fist-pump vociferously enough to beat the best at their own game.

“I have nothing to prove anymore to anyone,” Svitolina said on Sunday, minutes after winning the biggest title of her career. With the sight of her ultra-thin frame blasting winners past her bigger opponents still swimming in your head, and the sound of her pain-filled grunts still ringing in your ears, you can’t help but vehemently agree.

Updated Date: Oct 29, 2018 14:56:11 IST