Life is endlessly perplexing, but in the fog of confusion which regularly hovers over our lives, it is important every now and then to be conscious of the idea that “perplexing” is not necessarily painful.
As a preacher I admired once said: “Different is not bad.” Things change, and change can bring about pain, but change can also liberate us. We might be surprised by the degree to which a changed lifestyle or personal path can make us happy and refreshed.
Uncertainty is not inherently negative.
Life is nothing if not a constant dance with uncertainty. It will often cause stress, but what is inherent to life is the process of trying to understand it. Assigning negative value to the search for understanding is something we choose to do. That isn’t baked into life’s equations.
Therefore, let us say this about Elina Svitolina’s week at the WTA Finals in Singapore: She changed many of the questions surrounding her by winning the biggest championship of her career. She undeniably altered the way her offseason will be talked about. She gave herself a powerfully positive experience by defeating Sloane Stephens in three sets on Sunday.
Yet, for all the ways in which Svitolina did change the conversation in Asia this week, in many ways she left one essential question the same.
The difference — in a world where life is constantly perplexing and nuanced — is not in the words themselves, but in HOW one emphasizes them while asking the question.
Imagine yourself saying the following question out loud, with a different vocal inflection on the capitalized words:
Example 1: “HOW can Elina Svitolina do more in her 2019 season?”
Example 2: “How can Elina Svitolina do MORE in her 2019 season?”
See the difference (or rather, HEAR the difference)?
Before beginning her tournament in Singapore, Svitolina’s outlook existed in the shadows of the first question’s tone and texture. HOW was she going to do something, anything, to improve her tennis and take a step forward in 2019? Svitolina appeared lost, going through a coaching transition for one thing, but also through a bodily change which was the talk of the tour, certainly among a lot of on-site journalists and coaches. HOW was she going to reset the dial after a season in which formidable players generally overpowered her from Roland Garros onward?
After leaving Singapore, the question above can remain exactly the same in its wording and sequence, but now, the HOW isn’t the point of emphasis. It’s the MORE. That’s the new center of the question for Svitolina, who has done something substantial at the WTA Finals and is therefore challenged to build on it for next year.
Each of the last four WTA Finals champions did not own a major at the time of their victory, but the previous winner in Singapore — Caroline Wozniacki — used it as a catapult to an Australian Open championship. Svitolina’s best shot at a major is at Roland Garros — her 2017 and 2018 Rome titles make that point relatively plain — but these slow-hardcourt WTA Finals showed that if the U.S. Open continues to use a slow surface, Svitolina should have every chance to win that tournament as well.
You might ask: “Why do the WTA Finals keep providing these highly unpredictable results?” Svitolina — by nearly everyone’s estimation and assessment — was the player least likely to make a run. Dominika Cibulkova in 2016 and Agnieszka Radwanska in 2015 were similarly unlikely champions.
A general answer: Players who either didn’t play as much tennis as others on tour this year, or who didn’t do as well as they hoped to — at the majors or in general — come to Singapore with something to prove. Players who won major titles don’t LACK effort or intensity at this tournament, but the others in the field have MORE to pursue and push for. Svitolina very clearly entered this competitive space with more fight — it’s not that Stephens (who had a fine tournament in her own right) or others had less passion. In some cases, they were not physically whole (Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki), but the effort from everyone was first-rate.
Svitolina had the most hunger in a hungry field of eight. She outworked an opponent in the final — Stephens — who relies on her ability to outwork her opponents. I went into the match thinking that Stephens was a better version of Svitolina, and on a larger level, I still think that is true, but on Sunday, Svitolina gave Stephens a taste of her own medicine.
Does this mean that Svitolina will have similarly soaring successes in 2019? That’s not a guarantee — not at all. Will she still have this chip on her shoulder? Maybe. Will the tour adjust to her game? Probably. Is Svitolina’s style of tennis capable of winning majors? Definitely — if Wozniacki, Halep and Kerber could all win majors in 2018, Svitolina surely can. The alchemy of a season — and all of its different mixed ingredients — is hard to predict.
Caroline Garcia did not build on her 2017 WTA Finals performance in 2018. Karolina Pliskova neither regressed nor moved forward. She is fundamentally in the same place as she was a year ago. Cibulkova still makes her presence felt on tour and is still a factor at majors — she made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon this year and beat Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open — but winning the 2016 WTA Finals did not lead to a dramatic improvement in season-long results.
Svitolina did seize a unique opportunity in Singapore, but is that the ramp onto a superhighway of prosperity, or was it just one really good week in which Svitolina had a better mindset than anyone else?
I don’t know the answer, and I don’t have a firm opinion on it.
I do know, however, that the tone and tenor of Svitolina’s offseason are now different, even if the words and questions might remain the same.