On a micro level, sure, it’s not all that surprising Elina Svitolina lost to Magda Linette on Thursday at Wimbledon. We know Svitolina struggles at majors. Linette has battled Simona Halep and other top players in first weeks of majors before.
This isn’t an upset on the scale of — say — Lori McNeil over Steffi Graf in 1994. Not even close. Not even in the same universe. It’s an upset, but hardly a titanic one.
Yet, while one day and one tournament went poorly for Svitolina, isn’t it at least a little surprising on a larger and more expansive level that she hasn’t had one major tournament in which all the pieces fit into place?
Svitolina is 26. She has a stack of 1,000-point (formerly Premier 5) tournament titles in her trophy case. She has a WTA Finals championship on her resume. She was one of only two women (Serena Williams being the other) who made more than one major semifinal in 2019. When she reached those semifinals, she lost to Halep and Serena, both elite players. She didn’t lose to players she was expected to beat.
Isn’t it at least a little surprising that Svitolina hasn’t arrived at the intersection of form and opportunity at least once?
Barbora Krejcikova, Sofia Kenin, and some of the other WTA players who have recently won majors did not go through several years of reaching quarterfinals or fourth rounds, only to fall short. Those results weren’t the product of a half-decade of building toward the summit.
Krejcikova, just to draw out the contrast with Svitolina, won Roland Garros in only her fifth main-draw appearance at any major. She entered Paris having gone beyond the second round only once at a major (the fourth round last October). Krejcikova had far less experience, far fewer bites at the apple, and yet she found that major in which her form, combined with an open draw and a few close matches that went her way.
Isn’t it a little surprising Svitolina hasn’t had that kind of major yet, given everything else she has done outside the majors?
We don’t have to linger on Svitolina, though. Let’s broaden the discussion and note that after the pandemic disruptions of 2020, it’s not as though the careers of women’s tennis players are steadily pointing upward, with no hiccups or stumbles along the way.
Instructively, even the players who recently won majors aren’t taking those moments and soaring even higher. With Naomi Osaka, it’s more a case of the difference between hardcourt and non-hardcourt tennis. However, she is hardly alone.
Sofia Kenin is not in a good place right now. Iga Swiatek could be in the mix at Wimbledon but has nevertheless been knocked down a peg at Roland Garros and is predictably meeting more resistance since her French Open title.
Among players who recently reached a major final, the arrow isn’t necessarily pointing upward, either: Victoria Azarenka made the 2020 U.S. Open final. Jennifer Brady made the 2021 Australian Open final. Azarenka got bounced from Wimbledon on Thursday. Brady is injured, but she wasn’t able to go deep at the French Open, either.
Two of the four Roland Garros semifinalists — Maria Sakkari and Tamara Zidansek — are already out of Wimbledon.
I mention all of these names and examples to simply show that the up-and-down nature of a career is a pervasive thing, not an isolated thing. Upsets in microcosm aren’t big surprises, but not seeing a player of Svitolina’s caliber — at age 26 — make a single major final is a bit of a plot twist.
Alexander Zverev — the male player who is most commonly compared to Svitolina in terms of results — has reached a major final. He took advantage of a confluence of circumstance and determination.
Let’s close with this simple thought: If the Wimbledon women’s final involves less than fully familiar faces, Svitolina’s absence from this parade of variety will become more conspicuous, not less.