Tennis with an Accent (TWAA), in its short period of existence, has developed an impressive archive on players and matches, largely thanks to Matt Zemek and the contributions by other writers such as yours truly. If you use, for example, the search function on top of the TWAA homepage and type in “Svitolina,” you get access to articles written with her as the primary focus. Shuffling through (is that an acceptable term in today’s digital world?) those pieces, I came across three interesting passages, all penned by Matt.
In this review of Simona Halep’s third-set comeback win over Elina Svitolina back in February, Matt says the following: “My only word of caution here: Don’t make Doha into Wimbledon or Roland Garros. The key for Svitolina is to make sure that what happens in February doesn’t bleed into the bigger moments of the tennis season.”
Almost exactly a month later, on March 16, he uses the following words to conclude his article evaluating Svitolina’s progress in the 2019 season: “Elina Svitolina is headed in the right direction. […] Now, if she can just reach a semifinal at a specific kind of tournament: a major one.”
Finally, and a lot more recently, in his preview of Thursday’s semifinal match between Svitolina and Simona Halep published two days earlier, appositely entitled “Svitolina can heal a wound,” Matt reminds us the bitter defeat Svitolina suffered at the hands of Halep in the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals when she led by a set and 5-1, only to surrender the match, winning one out of the next 13 games: “In addition to winning huge titles, athletes love to settle scores, to avenge scarring losses, to heal deep wounds. Svitolina will have a chance to do just that on Thursday at the All England Club.”
Never have truer words been spoken.
The eighth-ranked Ukrainian player most likely came into this semifinal with some memories of malaise lingering in her head. While she defeated Simona four times out of six in their head-to-head matches since the beginning of 2017 (the only other meeting dates back to 2013), the two losses to Halep were savage in terms of location and timing – the devastating loss at Roland Garros and the most recent one in Doha, both noted above. On Tuesday, she overcame the barrier of never having reached a semifinal in a Major. Thursday represented a chance to put to rest those memories and reach the next career steppingstone, the final of a Major.
That is already a lot on the line for one match. Furthermore, Elina’s task was to accomplish that task on a court on which she had never played before, one considered the temple of tennis by many, on her first match in the semifinal of a Major.
Could the jittery start to the match by Svitolina be attributed to the combined weight of all those factors? We will never know the precise answer to that, but in my opinion, it would be completely understandable. Nor would it be the first time a top-rated player suffered from a such anxiety to start a big-stage match.
Then again, Halep was not exactly the picture of serenity on the other side of the net either. That gave way to a tightly contested, but not necessarily high-quality, first two games in which both players had to play through setbacks. Unfortunately for Svitolina, both games ended in Halep’s favor.
Frankly, those first two games were a fitting prelude to what was to come for the duration of the match, so it only makes sense that I delve into their details (and spare you the rest). They basically set the tone for the rest of the match that ended 6-1, 6-3 in Halep’s favor, lasting one hour and 13 minutes.
On the very first point, Halep created the open court with a wide serve, but her forehand placed (“placed,” not “hit,” notice the difference) to the open court on the second shot clipped the net, barely making it over for a winner. She followed that up with a forehand unforced error to go down 0-30, but as noted above, Svitolina’s shots and movement also carried all the signs of a nervy start. She had a sitter inside the baseline and in the middle of the court on the 15-30 point, for example, on which she had ample time to line up and hit the winner. Instead, she did not move quickly enough to position herself well (though she had the time). The ball ended up a tad too close to her body. She merely spun the ball back to Halep’s backhand. It eventually turned into 23-shot rally (one of the two longest of the first set) that ended in Simona’s favor.
Each player made three unforced errors in that game and Halep added two double faults, both coming on deuce points. Yet, Simona also came up with clutch winners on the two points when she needed them the most, both coming when facing break points. Svitolina did squander a third break point when she once again merely sent the ball back in play on a high-sitting, 73-mph second serve by Simona instead of taking her chances. She did the same again on the next shot when she had a fairly comfortable backhand to accelerate, but spun it back crosscourt. She paid the price when Halep accelerated the ball herself with her backhand down-the-line and won the point.
The game ended on a forehand unforced error by Svitolina. In that game, Simona was tight, but not as tight as Elina. She was holding back some, but not as much as Elina. Although seldom done, she was willing to go for winners, unlike Elina. Halep had the disposition of a player who had been there before, ready to overcome the jittery start on her part. Svitolina had the disposition of a player who had never been there, wondering if she could settle down to begin with, let alone execute her plan.
Similar patterns ensued in the second game.
After six points featuring two more unforced errors by Halep (one on a routine second-serve return in the net on break point at 30-40) and one by Svitolina, we got to the first deuce. On that point, Halep returned the ball short. Once again, Svitolina’s forward movement did not reflect a player in attacking mode, so she got there late and had to approach with an upward shot straight to Simona’s backhand. The Romanian punished it crosscourt. On the next point, it was Halep’s turn to get tight. She apprehensively jumped off her back foot on three overly defensive shots in a row, each falling shorter, the third landing in the net. In short, the jitters had yet to leave the court for either player.
Similar to what happened in the first game, Halep produced the rare brave winner when game point down, striking a beautiful backhand down-the-line on the move, her trademark shot. On the fifth deuce point, she went all-out this time, nailing three shots in a row, following them up with a smart drop shot that forced Elina to sprint from the back of the court, and eventually passed her to get one more break-point opportunity. She broke serve when Svitolina missed a crosscourt backhand wide.
Halep went up 2-0, ready to put to work her well-oiled baseline machine. Svitolina, for her part, was still stuck at the stage of having to start her engine.
There! The rest is elementary, dear reader.
Those two games lasted 20 minutes and laid the map for the match. The next 14 games took only 53 minutes.
From 2-0 forward, Halep got more and more confident overall with each game. Svitolina, on the other hand, took a while to loosen up due to falling behind early. She only had one winner in the first six games. When she did finally begin to recover and stayed with Halep through the early part of the second set, she was still not able to elevate her level enough to challenge Simona, who earned the decisive break on the seventh game to go up 4-3. Two games later, the match was over. Halep lost only one point on her serve in the second set.
Simona outperformed Elina in almost every category, including winners (23 to 7 from groundstrokes), unforced errors (17 for Elina, 12 for Simona), and extended rallies, with the Romanian winning 25 out of 32 rallies that lasted nine shots or longer. She also won eight out of the 10 points at the net, where her opponent had dismal success, winning four out of 13 such points. This was due in part to Halep’s efficient use of the drop shot throughout the match, winning five out six points in which she attempted a drop shot in the first set by my count.
Relevant postmatch quotes:
Svitolina [asked about the importance of the first two games]:
“Yeah, I think was really long games. Yeah, I didn’t take my chances. That’s I think was disappointing. In the beginning, you want to play well, you want to make a statement that you are, yeah, there for the fight. Yeah, I think I wouldn’t say it was the key for the match, but I think, yeah, I just missed the opportunities to get, yeah, the chances in the match from those two games, I would say, three games [referring to the 3-3 game in the second].”
Svitolina [about the key moments of the match]:
“I think the beginning, I would say. Then also in the second set, I think maybe 3-All I should have play little bit better. Maybe I made too many unforced errors that game which gave a chance to go forward and get the confidence.” [she made two unforced errors in that five-point-long game].
Halep [about grinding out the long rallies]:
“I knew that I was actually prepared against her to fight for every ball. I played many times against her, and I knew that she doesn’t let the rhythm low. I had to be there, I had to be strong. Today I think it was, again, one of the best matches on grass.”
Halep [about the prospect of stopping Serena from winning her 24th Major title]:
“I’m desperate to win Wimbledon more than to stop her. I will focus on myself. I’m not thinking about her record. Of course, is huge. Her records are huge already. Yeah, is nothing about that. It’s just a tennis match, big challenge, a great match. So I will try just to give my best.”
Simona and Serena will face each other on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. London time.