Elina Svitolina returned to the WTA’s Top 10 and climbed to the top of the Porsche Race to Singapore leaderboard as a result of winning her eighth career title at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Italian Open) on May 21. In the tournament final she finally defeated former world No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 in Rome.
“Every single day, everyone is working very hard,” Svitolina said in a post-match WTA interview of winning her second Premier 5 title. “They are waiting for these kind of moments when there is a right moment and the right day. I think I can be proud of myself for handling the pressure because I played some tough matches here. Today I needed to show that I am there and I want to win and I’m ready to do it.”
The No. 8 seed at the Italian Open is enjoying her career-best season, winning consecutive titles at the Taiwan Open and Dubai Championships before kicking off the clay court campaign with another victory at the Paribas Istanbul Cup.
The Ukrainian won her first match in six encounters versus No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic on her way to the final. There she faced her most challenging test yet in Halep, who was aiming for the elusive Madrid-Rome double last earned in 2013 by Serena Williams of the U.S.A.
“I saw she was really like playing and moving really good. It was kind of expected that she would be tired. So I was trying to stay there, to put pressure and to be there in the right moment, to be ready, at least to give myself a chance to come back in the second set.” (Svitolina dropped the first set, 4-6).
Halep coasted to a 5-2 lead at the start of the match, only to roll her ankle as the initial set ended, eventually clinching it two games later. By this time Svitolina had found her game and began working back into the match. At 5-3 in the second set, turning to hit an inside out forehand, Halep once again felt ankle pain. She called to have it taped, but continued playing on, not wanting to stop, trying to win the second set.
Svitolina took 3-1 and 5-3 leads in the second set, holding off several comebacks from her Romanian opponent, winning the set in the 12th game. This started a string of seven straight games won, putting herself on the brink of victory. Halep held serve down 0-5 in the third set and battled Svitolina hard in a contested final game. Elina held on for the win after engaging for two hours and seven minutes.
Svitolina struck 25 winners against 37 unforced errors, converting seven of 11 breakpoint chances. Halep hit 30 winners to 47 errors.
The conclusion of the Italian Open meant relief, but significantly bigger relief with a win. Svitolina’s training team hoped for a quick trip home prior to the start of the French Open. Svitolina was off to Paris to enjoy a few days of recovery and prepare for her next first match.
Svitolina the French Open favorite?
Despite already winning four tournaments and being arguably the WTA’s top performer in 2017, Svitolina did not consider herself the favorite heading into the French Open. In fact, she had not yet reached the semifinal round at any Grand Slam event. Svitolina is convinced there are no favorites among the ladies, and playing conditions will be a major factor.
“I cannot name some player,” she said at a press conference following her victory in Rome. “Of course, there are so many players that can play really good. It’s gonna matter the conditions of the court because if the courts are gonna be under water for a couple of days and raining and stuff… So it’s gonna be advantage for people who are smacking the ball so hard. So hopefully the courts will be dry and we will have more opportunities for clay-court players. There are so many factors… it’s a Grand Slam. There is so much pressure. Everyone is so hungry to win. There is no one I can name as a favorite.”
Modesty aside, her victory over Halep at the Italian Open firmly placed her on the list of players with a solid shot at winning the clay-court major, more so with top names sitting out the event. Garbine Muguvuza of Spain, the 2016 French Open winner over Serena Williams, has struggled in 2017. Williams is not playing because she is pregnant, and two-time champion Maria Sharapova is also not in the field since she was not granted a wild card following her suspension.
Svitolina reached the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2015, losing to Ana Ivanovic. Currently ranked a career-high No. 6, Svitolina feels that she is more mature and hopes to advance far at the French Open.
“I will try to do it because I have been working with my coach [veteran Gabriel Urpi],” Svitolina said. “We were just speaking about it, about preparation that I can do to prepare differently for a Grand Slam. During the season, play less tournaments because now I’m almost each week playing, like, lots of matches. Also because it also damages, sometimes, your mental part and your physical part in a Grand Slam – when you need to be there, like 100 percent.”