Athletes live to win championships. A Wimbledon semifinal is precious for many reasons, but none more significant than the opportunity to play for the most prestigious title in tennis. Athletes don’t need any special motivation for Wimbledon semifinals. The prize itself is enough.
Yet, in one of Thursday’s Wimbledon semifinals, the motivation for Elina Svitolina transcends the prize itself.
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.
The moment when Elina Svitolina made her first major semifinal was supposed to have happened two years ago, not on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Svitolina led Simona Halep a set and 5-1 in the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals. Svitolina, who had beaten Halep in the 2017 Rome final, carried her form into that tournament and that quarterfinal match. When she led 5-1 in the second set, the match seemed over. 99.9 percent of all matches seem over at 5-1 in a match-concluding set. Once in a blue moon, the unfathomable comeback occurs, but any reasonable person is ready to acknowledge that one player is about to win.
Elina Svitolina was about to win and make her first major semifinal… but never took the final step.
Svitolina lost five games in a row, scrambled to win the 12th game of the set and force a tiebreaker, and gained one match point… but never could close down that set. Halep ran away with the third by serving a bagel. Svitolina lost 12 of the last 13 games after amassing her huge scoreboard lead.
Svitolina made two quarterfinals in her next eight major tournaments, both in Australia. Much like Alexander Zverev in the 2018 clay season, she did better on the regular tour than at majors. She lost a third-set lead to Madison Keys in the fourth round of the 2017 U.S. Open, but Halep at Roland Garros is her biggest blown lead. The fact that it occurred in the biggest match of her life makes this major semifinal reunion a rendezvous not just with Halep, but with her own memories as well.
Svitolina has beaten Halep before. The contours of the matchup won’t be the primary challenge for Svitolina. The fuller test lies in the ability to learn from 2017 at Roland Garros without dwelling on the experience to the point that Elina tries too hard to expunge that memory.
Wanting to settle a score is the kind of motivation which is so obvious that it can push a player too far, making a player overextend and do too much, to hit the spectacular shot instead of the percentage shot. Svitolina shouldn’t worry about having to do anything extraordinary… and that’s part of the irony of competition:
You can be extremely motivated to heal a wound, but the way toward healing is to not give the wound too much power.
Elina Svitolina has been waiting for this reunion with Simona Halep at a major, and as a result of all that waiting, she will need to continue to be patient once Thursday’s semifinal begins.