US Open 2019: Defensively solid Elina Svitolina pulls out all the stops to weather tough-battling Venus Williams

  • What should’ve been just another day at the office for Elina Svitolina, given her track record against her rival, turned into quite the sparring match at Flushing Meadows

  • A former World No 3, 24-year-old Svitolina has been steadily adding to her list of achievements; she made the quarter-finals at the Olympics in 2016, hit the top 3 and won three Premier titles in 2017

  • Facing pressure points — down 0-3 in the second set, and an impressive fight from the experience of Venus Williams, it was Svitolina who simply waited for Williams to falter

What should’ve been just another day at the office for Elina Svitolina, given her track record against her rival, turned into quite the sparring match at Flushing Meadows. However, in the end, the fifth seed came up victorious, taking a hard-earned, 6-4, 6-3 win over the two-time US Open champion Venus Williams, who had experience, career longevity, and the home advantage on her side.

Despite that longevity, that experience, and indeed, an incredibly spirited fightback, it was Elina Svitolina who came up on top, progressing to Round 3 at the US Open. Ukrainian World No 5 Svitolina came into Round 2 with a straight-sets win of her own, although American Whitney Osuigwe tested her slightly in the second set in that match.

After the conclusion of the first-round match, Svitolina had said, “… In the end, I was playing a really, really solid game I would say. She was up and down, but in the end it was very important for me just to bring my game, to bring consistency. I think this was the key.” Indeed, both consistency and dogged determination won the match for the 24-year-old Ukrainian, whose career trajectory has been nothing if not consistent.

 US Open 2019: Defensively solid Elina Svitolina pulls out all the stops to weather tough-battling Venus Williams

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine hits to Whitney Osuigwe of the United States in a first round match on day one of the 2019 US Open. Reuters

With age on her side, 24-year-old Svitolina has been having a strong 2019 season so far, her best in terms of Majors. Had she not been hampered by knee, neck and shoulder injuries, Svitolina, the sixth seed at the Australian Open this year, may have done even better. She progressed to the quarter-finals of the Grand Slam before losing to the eventual champion, Naomi Osaka. She has also had a good hard-court showing, making consecutive semi-final appearances in Doha and Dubai, and then at Indian Wells, despite a consistent knee niggle.

Svitolina’s last meeting against Venus Williams — this year, at the first round of the French Open, went 6-3, 6-3 in favour of the Ukrainian, and it was a comprehensive victory. Her ability to dig herself out of difficult situations through sheer force of will has stood Svitolina in excellent stead, and seen her reach deep for some well-fought, tough wins — including one against at Indian Wells against this year’s French Open champion Ashleigh Barty.

A former World No 3, 24-year-old Svitolina has been steadily adding to her list of achievements; she made the quarter-finals at the Olympics in 2016, hit the top 3 and won three Premier titles in 2017. Her climb has been strong and gradual — standing her in good stead for the future. Steady has always been the name of the game for Elina Svitolina, whose rankings graph since she went pro in 2010 — at only 15, has been almost textbook in its rise. In the last five years, the Ukrainian has been consistent in climbing — and then maintaining her rankings throughout the year, something even the best of players are not always able to do. There is a reason she was crowned the WTA Finals Champion last year, and this year, Svitolina has once again put her abilities on display.

On Wednesday, Svitolina brought that hard-court momentum back to get the win, though Williams put up a spirited battle en route. The American, a two-time winner Flushing Meadows, was the home favourite, while Svitolina made her first Grand Slam semi-final this year at Wimbledon, tumbling once more to the eventual champion, World No 1 Simona Halep.

Showing no sign of any of her injuries or of any pain, adept, agile and moving across the court with relative ease, Svitolina pulled out all the stops against a tough-battling, determined Williams. What Svitolina lacked for in terms of spin and shot variation, she made up for in fluidity of movement, and in focus. She reached deep for points, and although she may not necessarily have been able to reciprocate in kind, chased down a couple of blistering Williams forehands. Svitolina simply stood her ground, waiting for Williams to, proverbially, blink first. It is a strategy that has helped Svitolina before, and one not every player can pull off, particularly at the Grand Slam stage. Add to that Grand Slam stage the fact that Svitolina’s rival was one of the most beloved players in American tennis history, playing at home, and it was a certain recipe for some pressure. With Williams’ vast experience factored in, this game was never going to be mentally simple for the 24-year-old, but if she felt any nervousness, she showed no sign of it.

Adding credence to her solidity was the fact that Svitolina committed, over the course of the match, a relatively lower 22 unforced errors to Williams’ 47, of which 12 came in Set 1.

There is no disputing the fact that Svitolina moves well across court: she covered a solid 2.26km over the course of the match, moving well and returning in style. Although she is a solid player, she comes across more as the kind of player to respond to a shot, rather than actively attack, and plays relatively flatter strokes. What Svitolina can do, and solidly so, is defend like an absolute champion — something that has won her titles. In a way reminiscent of Simona Halep with her power-hitting, Svitolina has what Halep had searched for deeply in her earlier days — aggression, and nerves of steel — both of which the Ukrainian has in droves.

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine celebrates her win over Venus Williams of the United States in the second round on day three of the 2019 US Open. Reuters

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine celebrates her win over Venus Williams of the United States in the second round on day three of the 2019 US Open. Reuters

Facing pressure points — down 0-3 in the second set, and an impressive fight from the experience of Venus Williams, it was Svitolina who simply waited for Williams to falter, and falter she did. For Svitolina, what has also helped is that she has had that ability for years on end. Svitolina, as she did so well in the second set, was able to take the reins and up her level just that little bit more when she knew Williams was faltering, and kept it that way till the end. Another player might have had just the slightest pit in her stomach, or faltered just a little bit when their rival turned aggressor, but for Svitolina, that never has been the case. Many players plan to play like that — few execute it effectively, and in a game that’s as much mental, if not more, than it is physical, it is definitely Elina Svitolina that has the upper hand.

Svitolina now looks all set to take on compatriot Dayana Yastremska, who is incidentally even from the same hometown as her. 19-year-old Yastremska has so far in her career defeated three former World Number 1’s — Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Garbine Muguruza, with the two former wins coming during this hard court season — at Toronto and Cincinnati, so clearly, nerves are not something she struggles with either. In much the same way as Svitolina, Yastremska is able to pull off big play where it counts and play consistently.

What Svitolina has going in her favour is her significantly better experience on tour, and on the senior Slam level. At 19, Yastremska has yet to find her groove. Svitolina, on the other hand, is not just comfortable in hers, but holding to a strategy that worked phenomenally for her, whether on the level of a single match, or over the past few years.

Wednesday’s Round 2 match was the sort of fight any fan enjoys watching on the Grand Slam stage: two kinds of players, both so different in style, and yet, two players determined to take their game to the next level. And when that synergy occurs, magic happens on court. Guts and glory were what Svitolina was going for — and she certainly delivered on both counts.

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 19:09:28 IST