IF it had not been for a bout of childhood jealously, Elina Svitolina might never have pulled off the nerve-shredding win over Karolina Muchova at Wimbledon on Tuesday (10) that saw her become the first Ukrainian woman to reach the singles semi-finals at a major.
Svitolina only began pounding tennis balls with all the power she could muster from her then five-year-old body because she was desperate to grab some of the attention her parents showered on older brother Yulian.
On Tuesday, however, there was no shortage of attention as Svitolina faced off with unseeded Czech Muchova.
After 27 failed attempts to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam, the 24-year-old Svitolina knew it was a case of now or never considering the opponent standing before her was a Wimbledon debutant ranked 68th in the world.
Despite trailing 4-1 in the opening set and being broken when she first attempted to serve out the match, Svitolina finally managed to get a grip on her nerves to fashion a 7-5 6-4 win and set up a semi-final date with Simona Halep.
The Romanian, who at seven is the highest seed left in the women’s draw, beat China’s Shuai Zhang in straight sets.
The sheer relief for Svitolina at finally making it into the semis was clear to see as she had long been expected to challenge for the biggest prizes in tennis but until Tuesday all those attempts had fallen well short.
What was surprising was that the feat was achieved on Wimbledon’s rather threadbare lawns as the Ukrainian’s game is more suited to the sport’s slower surfaces.
The eighth seed was not about to complain, however
“It feels amazing. It is the first semi-final for me, and I actually didn’t expect it to happen here. It’s exciting and I am looking forward to my semi-final already,” said Svitolina, who was once offered money to switch allegiance to Israel.
Svitolina is already the most successful Ukrainian tennis player as she has won more trophies (13) than her compatriots – with Andriy Medvedev holding the previous record of 11.
But what Svitolina really wants is to conquer a slam.
“It’s an unbelievable achievement to win Wimbledon, to win a Grand Slam. But you have to work for it. There is no easy way. You have to overcome your fears,” she said.
For long periods during her quarter-final, though, it felt as if her challenge might again fall flat.
Considering Muchova had been on court for almost 3-1/2 hours on Monday (8), as she toppled third seed Karolina Pliskova in the longest women’s match at this year’s tournament, it was a little surprising when the Czech stormed into a 4-1 lead.
Muchova exploited her serve-and-volley tactics to great effect to rattle Svitolina but the Ukrainian knew she could count on much fresher legs to carry her over the finishing line.
After drawing level at 5-5, Svitolina sucked the life out of Muchova in the 11th game which dragged on for 12 minutes and stretched to six deuces before the eighth seed finally delivered the killer blow on her fifth break point.
A forehand volley winner on Svitolina’s first set point sealed the opener and, after overcoming the blip of dropping her serve in the first game of the second, she appeared on the cusp of a place in the semis when she served for the match at 5-2.
Those annoying nerves, however, were back to torment Svitolina and she was duly broken.
Her heart must have been pounding at the thought of another missed opportunity – considering she had fallen at this stage on four previous occasions at the majors – but she managed to keep the jitters in check to subdue Muchova’s spirited challenge.
“She’s a really tricky player and grass suits her. I had to fight for every point, take my opportunities,” said Svitolina.
“I had to really push her physically because I knew that she played three hours yesterday.”