By Mike McIntyre
Elina Svitolina wants to play Serena Williams again. Not just to say that she faced the legendary American player on more than one occasion, or that she held her own against her. The current world No. 4 wants to play Serena to see how her game has changed since the last time they faced each other, in that stunning upset victory by Svitolina at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games – and to see what the 23 time Grand Slam champion has added to her repertoire.
“It’s going to be very exciting to see her back on court,” Svitolina tells me. “Definitely I want to play against her. I want to see how things are going to go this time because the last time we played it was in Rio, so it was a different situation. I think she can come back at the same level she was at before. Also there will be something new from her, that’s what I’m expecting – [something new] even for her.”
Svitolina is clearly a student of the game, eager to learn from the champions that came before her. She laments the retirement of some of the greatest players that filled the era just before she joined the professional ranks, like Li Na and Kim Clijsters for example. It isn’t enough for the talented Ukrainian to simply watch their matches on video, she wishes she could have experienced what made them great first-hand.
“Just, you know, to feel the speed of the ball, to see the way they are playing, building the point. I really like the style of their games. Of the way they were presenting their games. I learned a lot from both of them. Of course we can see it on TV, but when you play against them it’s completely different, what they do in the important moments. I would definitely want to play against them.”
Svitolina will have to make do with facing the current crop of players on the professional circuit, who all would love to have the success of those players mentioned above – as well as veterans like Serena and Maria Sharapova – before they one day call it a career. Svitolina has been taking steps in the right direction to get there.
It was a year ago in Rome that Svitolina served notice that she was a legitimate presence ready to join the elite players on the tour. Overall, 2017 was a coming-out party for the Ukrainian, as she captured five WTA titles, beginning in Taipei. She then notched consecutive tournament victories for the first time in her career when she took the title in Dubai.
After those hard court successes, Svitolina proved she can do it on clay as well, with a title in Istanbul. It was in Rome, however, at the Italian Open where she defeated three high-quality players in a row – Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep – to emerge with the title and truly assert herself.
One match that Svitolina isn’t afraid to discuss with me is her collapse in the quarterfinals of last year’s French Open, where she was up a set and 5-1 (with a match point as well) against Halep before she fell apart and was defeated 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0. I don’t even have to ask Svitolina about that match as she takes control of the interview and addresses that potentially awkward subject. She is not one to shy away from those difficult moments, but rather sees them as a learning experience – part of the process she needs to go through to become a champion.
“Of course there [were] some very disappointing matches that I lost in the Grand Slams,” she says. “In Roland Garros I was very, very close to [reaching] the semifinal. But this is tennis and this is the way it goes. Sometimes you have to lose those kinds of matches to learn and to move forward.”
Svitolina certainly appeared to move forward from the missed opportunity at a first Grand Slam title in Paris. She exacted revenge on Halep later that summer in Toronto, where she thrashed the Romanian 6-1, 6-1 in the semis of the Rogers Cup before taking down Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-0 in the finals. Pretty impressive score lines against the current No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.
Svitolina lays claim to a winning record against the three players who are currently ahead of her in the WTA rankings – Halep, Wozniacki and No. 3 Garbine Muguruza. This bodes well for her future chances of taking over the top spot. But when I ask her which player she most wants to beat among her fellow competitors, without hesitation she mentions a player who many would not guess. Her memory of the sport and the losses she has incurred is so sharp that she mentions Aga Radwanska as the one she will most relish playing again. The Polish veteran leads their career head-to-head 4-0 and Svitolina clearly wants to correct that injustice.
“That’s the player [who] I want to play…I lost to her the last time that we played [around] two years ago.”
Aside from drawing inspiration from past losses on the tennis court, Svitolina also takes strength and motivation from other sports –boxing in particular.
“I really like that sport as a workout. I always try to go to the boxing club and it’s good for my mind. I just enjoy that sport, enjoy watching it. When I was growing up in Ukraine the Klitschko brothers [Wladimir and Vitali] were very famous. They…really inspired me to go for more, to achieve something that…probably I would not ever have in my mind as a goal.”
The goals are plenty now for Svitolina, and they all seem very much in reach, due to her studious and self-reflecting approach to the game. She never stops learning and isn’t afraid to look in the mirror to help progress towards Grand Slam success. At the rate she is moving forward, one of these days when she looks there, she will very likely be holding up her first major trophy.