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Elina Svitolina — unconventional can be encouraging

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

There once was a time when Elina Svitolina appeared to be the most formidable and relentless WTA Tour player in the world.

Months after Serena Williams went on pregnancy/maternity leave, Svitolina  gobbled up a bunch of Premier 5 titles two years ago in 2017. She entered Roland Garros as a top-tier contender and very nearly defeated Simona Halep in the quarterfinals. She flourished in the summer hardcourt season leading up to the U.S. Open.

Svitolina showed signs of becoming the kind of player the WTA is looking for right now: someone who is there most weeks of the year, someone who can post strong results at a majority of the tournaments she enters.

Given how brief the grass season is on the modern tennis tours, Svitolina — in 2017 — was in great position to control the calendar and become the avatar of a new consistency on the WTA Tour. So what if she didn’t do well at Wimbledon? She had every month except one — mid-June through mid-July — to get work done each year.

Entering the 2017 U.S. Open, the future looked very bright for Elina Svitolina. Her stinging loss to Halep at Roland Garros earlier that year — from a set and 5-1 up — had been minimized by her Rogers Cup title in Toronto. If she had lost an edge in Paris, it seemed that she had regained it in Canada.

Without Serena Williams around to crush dreams with her shutdown serve, and one year before Naomi Osaka would burst onto the scene as an electric hardcourt player who could reliably pulverize the ball and respond to big-match pressure, Svitolina had an opening to become a more formidable player at the non-Wimbledon major tournaments.

She led Madison Keys by a break in the third set of her fourth-round match at the 2017 U.S. Open. Precisely then, her path to a new and improved identity at the major tournaments was visible.

She then slipped.

Svitolina lost that break lead and lost four games in a row to Keys, who took the match, 6-4 in the third, and rode that result to the U.S. Open final Svitolina probably felt she should have reached.

Since then, Svitolina has ceased to be the beacon of consistency she once was. Nothing makes sense in her career anymore… but that isn’t as negative a reality as one might first think.

Svitolina is now the player on the WTA Tour who embodies the tour’s volatility… which is a good thing as well as an imperfect thing.

Her modest results are more pervasive than they were in 2017, but when she does extremely well, she makes a big impression.

Her 2018 WTA Finals championship floored everyone — in Singapore and around the world. She was going through a coaching transition. Her ideal playing weight seemed to be something she and her team were trying to figure out. In the midst of those uncertainties and the transitions they required, she beat the other seven women gathered in Singapore for the year-end championship.

Svitolina established then that she was capable of coming from nowhere to create a highly positive surprise.

That is exactly what she did at Wimbledon.

Svitolina did figure to make a major semifinal by now, but she never did figure to make her first major semifinal at SW19. She received a pinch of fortune when Margarita Gasparyan had to retire from a Week 1 match at the All England Club, but Svitolina did not have a piece-of-cake draw. She made the most of her good luck and handled Maria Sakkari, Petra Martic, and Karolina Muchova. She ran into a buzzsaw named Simona Halep, but she had broken her major semifinal duck.

Her capacity to pleasantly surprise remained intact.

Now, the greatest surprise of all could be just around the bend: Can Svitolina turn her Wimbledon awakening into a big second half of 2019? Can she regain 2017 form and, instructively, carry it through the U.S. Open and then the year-end championships?

Svitolina has lost the aura which would make most pundits EXPECT a big hardcourt summer from her. Therefore, regaining a 2017 level of consistency would be the perfect surprise, the latest plot twist which would underscore the “predictably unpredictable” nature of women’s tennis right now.

We will see if Elina Svitolina can surprise all of us once again this summer.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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