Elina Svitolina and Madison Keys in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. We have been here before.
Two women who are still trying to knock down the door and win a first major championship will meet in a fascinating matchup on Sunday night.
Sometimes, matchups are juicy because of how new and unexpected they are. This particular contest is freighted with intrigue not because it is new, but because it is so distinctly familiar. Can the player who lost the previous time manage to flip the script, or will the winner maintain the upper hand?
The bigger question: As in 2017, will the winner of this fourth-round match soar to the U.S. Open final and attain the level of stature befitting an upper-tier career?
Yes, Elina Svitolina and Madison Keys have been here before. Two years ago, they met in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the round of 16. Both players did not feel the biological clock of tennis ticking quite as urgently as they do in 2019, but for any accomplished players who are trying to score a first major title, urgency is not limited by age.
Svitolina entered that 2017 fourth-round match against Keys as the winner of the Toronto Premier 5. Svitolina ate Premier 5s for breakfast in 2017, winning three of the four in which she participated: Dubai, Rome and Toronto. She was a very strong hardcourt and clay player. It seemed only a matter of time before she broke through.
Yet, precisely when it seemed that Elina Svitolina’s strong 2017 season at the Premier 5s was going to translate into major-tournament glory, she lost focus for brief but hugely consequential periods of time.
She has been engaged in a battle to overcome those two failures ever since.
The more memorable failure of the two was Svitolina’s collapse from 5-1 up in the second set against Simona Halep in the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals. A disastrous half-hour in which Svitolina couldn’t win three separate match-winning games dealt her the most painful loss of her career.
Yet, one cannot forget that at the U.S. Open later in 2017, Svitolina suffered a loss which was almost as wrenching. It is the other gut-punch defeat of her career; the Roland Garros loss to Halep merely overshadows it. It doesn’t wipe it away.
Svitolina led Keys 4-2 in the third set. Keys is an electric player when locked in, but Svitolina was the steadier player for most of that match. Two more games of lucid hitting and all-court defense — in a protracted battle Svitolina is utterly comfortable with — would have lifted the Ukrainian into her first hardcourt major quarterfinal.
Keys won the next four games, as all the work Svitolina had done to put herself in position to win abruptly evaporated. It wasn’t Halep in Paris, but it was close enough… and the impact of that defeat was substantial.
Svitolina surprised everyone by winning the 2018 WTA Finals after a coaching change in the midst of many changes, and she did remain a factor in the winter hardcourt season to start 2019. However, in extremely close and tense matches in the latter rounds of tournaments, Svitolina fell short in the Middle East and then in Indian Wells. She was a threat and a contender, but she also didn’t make a final in Dubai or Southern California.
Scar tissue from past setbacks is not the easiest thing to handle.
When Svitolina endured her worst clay season in recent memory, she came to Wimbledon with absolutely zero expectations of a career renaissance. In that dark moment — starting over at ground zero — Svitolina could have lamented her fate and cursed her lack of accomplishments on grass.
Instead, she might have built the foundation of a newly restored house.
Svitolina did get a break when Margarita Gasparyan — so close to ousting Svitolina in Week 1 at Wimbledon — had to retire. The Ukrainian was given manna from heaven, but could she convert it into something special?
Svitolina — calling to mind (albeit on a smaller and far less dramatic scale) Andre Agassi winning his first major at Wimbledon in 1992 — made her first major semifinal on grass, a development no one in tennis predicted.
Was this result the product of WTA randomness, or was it a sign that Svitolina had regained something which was previously lost?
No one in tennis might have a clear answer to that question… but how Svitolina plays Keys in this fourth-round reunion on Sunday might help her — and us — get a better idea of where Elina stands in the tennis firmament.
As for the woman she will face on Sunday, Madison Keys was utterly lost at Wimbledon. She crashed out of SW19 in Week 1 with a scattered and uneven display, a familiar case of her powerful fireworks veering off in the wrong direction.
Keys had absolutely nothing to hang her hat on in 2019 as she came to Cincinnati. Her season was drifting into the mist, her talents — so evident in that run to the 2017 U.S. Open final against Sloane Stephens, and in a 2018 dash to the semis against Naomi Osaka — not coming to the forefront.
Abruptly and without warning, Keys put the pieces together in Ohio.
She stormed to the Cincinnati title, partly by calibrating her electric groundstrokes and using court coverage to hit authoritative shots from defensive positions, but also by refusing to get down on herself when the scoreboard was against her. She beat Simona Halep in a three-set nailbiter which went down to the wire. She then overcame 5-3 deficits in both sets to defeat Svetlana Kuznetsova for the championship.
Keys has so often allowed one bad point to bleed into the next eight or nine points. In Cincinnati, her mind moved to the next point instead of clinging to the past. That version of Keys can go places, and now that version of Keys will stand in a place which is quite familiar: in Ashe Stadium across the net from Elina Svitolina, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.
The stakes are very high, even higher than they were in 2017.
We will soon see what this reunion inspires in each player. The journey these players take on Sunday will be the prelude to the journey they embark upon in 2020.