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Ukrainian peo sports update: tennis

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Svitolina achieves top-10 ranking

The start of a new tennis season and a coaching change could not derail Elina Svitolina’s momentum from last year’s success on the courts.

Svitolina’s ambition to build on her achievements in 2016, when she became the first woman since 2010 to beat two top-ranked women in the same year, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber of Germany, led her to spend Christmas away from home. She was seeded sixth at the Brisbane International tournament, the first competition of 2017 and a prelude to the Australian Open.

She was the first to arrive in Brisbane – a full week before the tournament’s commencement – wanting to get in lots of practice. The strategy proved beneficial as Svitolina defeated Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, Shelby Rogers of the U.S.A. and No. 1 Kerber (again) in the semifinal, before losing to Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in the final.

Following her strong run in Brisbane, Svitolina made it to the third round in the Australian Open, outpointing Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakhstan 6-0, 6-2, and Julia Boserup of the U.S.A. 6-4, 6-1, prior to being upset by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 5-7, 6-4, 3-6. This proved to be a temporary setback and a serious motivator for the young Ukrainian tennis star.

Early February saw top-seeded Svitolina win her fifth career WTA title when she defeated unseeded Peng Shuai of China 6-3, 6-2 in the final of the Taiwan Open. A solid mental and physical approach meant an improved serve, return and baseline game. She found herself down a break early in both sets and had lost her only previous meeting with Peng three years ago. Svitolina bested Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in the quarterfinal and Mandy Minella of Luxembourg in the semifinal, while improving to 5-2 in career finals.

The winning continued some three weeks later when Svitolina won her second title of the season at the Dubai Tennis Championships, dominating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark 6-4, 6-2 in a final that started two hours late due to rain, and earning her a slot in the top 10 women’s rankings. She earned her final berth by knocking out top-seeded Kerber (yet again) in a challenging semifinal 6-3, 7-6. The Dubai tournament is the most prestigious title of the six Svitolina has won, the previous five being lower-level WTA events. She left Dubai on a 12-match winning streak.

All this was achieved with Svitolina’s revamped coaching team, now comprising Gabriel Urpi and Thierry Ascion, replacing Iain Hughes and Justine Henin. Henin came aboard in 2016, but is pregnant with her second child.

The 22-year old Ukrainian tennis star reached a career-high ranking of No. 14 back in March 2016 and she ended the year in the top 15 for the first time in her young career. In November 2016 she announced she had decided to part ways with her coach of two and a half years, Hughes. The British coach was instrumental in Svitolina’s development, leading her to three WTA titles and two tournament finals losses.

Svitolina paid tribute to her former coach and was thankful for his help. She acknowledged Hughes teaching her many things on and off the court, making her a better player and helping her reach many goals. She described working with Hughes as an invaluable experience and said she was very grateful for his efforts in bettering her career.

Under Hughes, Svitolina reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2016 French Open, defeating France’s Alize Cornet before losing to eventual champion Serena Williams. Svitolina gained some serious revenge when she defeated the reigning Olympic gold medalist and world No. 1 to reach the quarterfinal round at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Svitolina defeated five top-10 players in 2016, including the No. 1 ranked and two-time Grand Slam champion Kerber, Williams and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza of Spain. This was an amazing achievement for Svitolina, as all three of the above players won the Tour Grand Slam titles in 2016.

In 2017 Svitolina’s goal was to break into the top-10 for the first time in her career and hopefully make a statement at the Grand Slam events. She certainly has the tools to challenge the top-rated players, and she is fully equipped to play on all surfaces.

Svitolina found special enjoyment in defeating Serena Williams, the world’s No. 1, while wearing Ukraine’s colors at the Rio Olympics last August. Another proud moment for her was when she rose in the rankings beyond compatriot Alona Bondarenko’s career-high No. 19, which had been the previous best by a Ukrainian woman.

Andrei Medvedev, the 1999 French Open runner-up, is the only Ukrainian tennis player to have made a Grand Slam singles final and his former world ranking of No. 4 gives Svitolina two goals to attain in 2017.

Ukraine has suffered since 2014 with its powerful neighbor Russia having annexed Crimea and conducted a war against Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. Svitolina believes her tennis achievements have somewhat offset some of her country’s strife. She serves as an example to young Ukrainians that everyone has the opportunity to do well with hard work and perhaps a little luck. The Olympic victory in 2016 was a very special win for Ukraine on the world stage.

While successfully improving her player ranking in 2016, Svitolina also made it into the top-25 of the women’s most popular players on the WTA website, finishing the year at No. 24.

Up close and personal

The beginning of 2016 did not go Elina Svitolina’s way, but after gaining more confidence and changing her pre-tournament routine, her results improved with the season ending on a solid note. This year Svitolina has set a goal of moving into the top-10 rankings as a main motivator.

She realizes it is impossible to win every match – there is always some part of her game to work on. She gains extra motivation playing at Grand Slam tournaments and from fan support.

Svitolina’s greatest strength is her fitness. She has developed great endurance, which allows her to play long matches, many matches in a row, changing the rhythm and pace of the game depending on her opponent’s style of play. She has worked on developing a balance between defense and attack, trying to keep her opponent off guard. She travels with her fitness coach, who creates programs for her including non-repetitive exercises and plenty of rest.

Svitolina chats with most of the women she encounters on the WTA tour, but has few friends. Her closest tennis buddy is a fellow Ukrainian, Olga Savchuk. Away from the court, she likes to focus on other things and not think about tennis. She thinks tennis while she is playing.

Her idol is Andre Agassi, whom she has never met, but has seen in some tournaments. She is often given lots of gifts by her fans, especially when playing in Japan. The gift of choice is usually a toy, sometimes a T-shirt, handbag, towel or socks. Svitolina likes to read, because she spends so much time on airplanes. At tournament locales she is an avid walker and sightseer. She enjoys walking in parks, visiting museums and taking photographs.

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com

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