Elina Svitolina Of Ukraine One Match Away From Wimbledon Final

It is time to consider whether having a child, and spending a year away from the sport to raise money to help her compatriots back home in Ukraine, have made Elina Svitolina an even better tennis player.

She says they have, and there is no reason not to believe her.

Svitolina’s improbable run at Wimbledon rolled on in grand fashion on Tuesday. Two days after Svitolina, a new mother who needed a wild card to get into the tournament, beat the former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in an emotional and dramatic triumph, Svitolina beat the current world No. 1, Iga Swiatek.

Svitolina, playing with pluck, steeliness and a higher purpose, matched the hard-hitting Swiatek shot for shot, and then some, on the most hallowed court in the sport, sending joy through a crowd that had been with her since her first shot of a tournament that she had thought would be over for her by now.

When the match was over, Svitolina put a hand over her face, hugged Swiatek from across the net and then raised two arms to the crowd in a shrug of disbelief.

“I don’t know what is happening 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 because she was pregnant with her first child with her husband, Gaël Monfils, the veteran tour pro and tennis showman from France.

Tennis was barely a priority then anyway. Her pregnancy was at the top of the list, and so was raising money for war relief efforts in her homeland. 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, Skai. Not long afterward, Svitolina began training and practicing for her return to the WTA Tour, in March at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

It didn’t go well at first, as she lost six of her first seven matches, but Svitolina — a graceful and deceptively powerful player who had been ranked as high as third in the world as recently as 2019 — slowly started to regain her feel for the ball and for the competition.

And she made it clear, especially during the French Open in Paris, that tennis was no longer about money or ranking points. It was about trying to bring some joy to the people of Ukraine.

She did plenty of that as she surged into the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Still, she had made it past the second round there just twice in eight tries and had not competed on grass since 2021 until last month. Her hopes were so low that she bought tickets to a Harry Styles concert last week, assuming she would be free.

She wasn’t, and after her win over Swiatek on Tuesday, she said she did not think she was going to take the pop star up on his offer to invite her to a concert anytime soon.

“It was very sweet from him,” she said of Styles’s offer. “Hopefully one day I can go.”

It will have to wait at least until after her semifinal match on Thursday against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, who beat Jessica Pegula of the United States in three sets. A win over Vondrousova might very well set up a showdown in the finals with a player from Belarus (Aryna Sabalenka) or with Elena Rybakina, the defending champion, who grew up in Russia but represents Kazakhstan. Sabalenka and Rybakina play their quarterfinal matches Wednesday and are heavy favorites.

That is down the road, though, and would surely bring tension similar to that in Svitolina’s fourth-round win over Azarenka. Players from Russia and Belarus were prohibited from playing in the tournament last year, and while they have been mostly warmly received, Svitolina and the other players from Ukraine have refused to shake hands with players from those countries.

Azarenka was booed off the court — unfairly so, Svitolina said — after Svitolina had beaten her Sunday, even though Azarenka gave Svitolina a thumbs-up after the final point. Last year, Azarenka offered to play in a charity fund-raiser to benefit war relief efforts, though players from Ukraine told her not to. But the boos still rained down.

Swiatek, who is from Poland and is a staunch critic of the invasion, has done more than any player not from Ukraine to help war relief efforts.

But there was no shortage of healthy tension in Tuesday’s match. Swiatek, a four-time Grand Slam tournament champion, appeared to be in control early and even served for the first set at 5-4. She then missed on a series of tentative and wild forehands and first serves. Svitolina kept making her shots on tight wires, clearing the net by mere inches, time and again for the rest of the afternoon.

She won 16 of the final 18 points in the first set. As 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’m making pretty much the same mistakes,” Swiatek said. “I wanted some tip, what they think I should actually focus on. Sometimes when something is not working, it’s hard to find a reason because there are maybe a few reasons.”

The biggest reason of all was Svitolina, who said later that she had been playing with a different sort of inspiration. She had spent parts of the last two days watching videos of her child in Ukraine watching her matches on a phone. She knows what her victories mean and where they fit in the grand scheme of things.

All of that has a power.

“War made me stronger and also made me mentally stronger,” she said. “I don’t take difficult situations as like a disaster, you know? There are worse things in life. I’m just more calmer.”

Have no doubt: She desperately wants to win, but her experience of the pressure has changed.

“I look at the things a bit differently,” she said.

After she walked off the court, she placed a call over FaceTime to Monfils, who — along with her mother and his — is taking care of their daughter at one of their homes. She said Skai hadn’t talked to her much. She was distracted by a serving of ice cream.

Can she win this tournament and the biggest prize of all?

She insisted, as she had after the Azarenka match, that she wasn’t meant to go this far. She isn’t letting her husband come, because he has not been here yet, and she is not messing with her routine now. Who needs him anyway, when she has another purpose and another power, especially against those opponents from Russia and Belarus?

“Each time I play against them, it’s big motivation, big responsibility,” she said. “Right now it’s very, very far. It seems very close, but it’s very far from this.”

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