Elina Svitolina's breakthrough 2017 season saw her transition from a steady young climber to a force to be reckoned with on tour. The 23-year-old Ukrainian, who patiently improved her year-end ranking year over year since 2010, spent the last 10 months checking off milestone after milestone. She won her first Premier title in Dubai, made her Top 10 debut, became the first woman to win three Premier 5 titles in a single season, and firmly positioned herself in the Top 5 by mid-season. With patience, humility, and inscrutable work ethic, Svitolina is now set to make her debut at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
2017 Season Snapshot:
Match record: 51-12 (81%)
Titles: 5 (Taipei City, Dubai, Istanbul, Rome, Toronto)
Key Stat: 7-1 vs. Top 5 opposition.
WTA Finals Qualification: 1st time.
Svitolina's 2017 success did not come out of nowhere. She has been laying the groundwork for these results over the last two years, gradually transitioning her grinding game-style into a tactically disciplined counter-puncher, one who is now willing to throw well-timed punches when her opponents let up. That balance has transformed her into one of the toughest outs in tennis, balancing indefatigable defense with intelligent decision-making when her opponents get passive. Last year she sprinted through the final months of the season, becoming the only woman to defeat both reigning No.1s last year, ousting Serena Williams at the Olympics and Angelique Kerber in Beijing.
"It was a tough time for me a year ago where I really needed to make little changes to my game, to be more offensive," Svitolina said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I was struggling and it wasn’t working well. There’ve been some difficult moments in my life, but in the end, it’s me on the court, and I’m the one who needs to decide what to do."
It's no surprise that the changes began to solidify after a 2016 season working with former No.1 and seven-time major champion Justine Henin. This season, with a team that included Gabriel Urpi at the start of the season, and now Thierry Ascione and hitting partner Andrew Bettles, Svitolina has shown an insatiable hunger to continue to improve her game. Despite her tour-leading five titles and ascension into the Top 5, the words "keep improving" have never left the youngster's vocabulary.
"I always try to take one step at a time," Svitolina said on the WTA Insider Podcast after winning the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in February, her biggest title at the time. "It's very important for me to not rush things, and to stay very positive with myself. I did a lot of work with all the coaches I've had and my new team, so it's always nice to have different opinions on my game. With Justine as well, it was an amazing year.
"I'm very happy with the way I'm playing now. Of course, there's so many things that I need to work on, and I'm looking forward to new challenges."
Hear more from Svitolina after her Dubai triumph below:
The primary focus for Svitolina now has been her mental game. Her 5-0 record in finals this season, beating Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, and Kerber in her Premier 5 finals, is proof the work has paid off. But Svitolina is the first to admit there's more work to be done, as evidenced by her crushing losses to Halep at the French Open and Madison Keys at the US Open, where she failed to close the matches out after dominating the first two sets.
"There’s always something that’s not good enough," Svitolina said. "Sometimes my team has a tough time with that, because I’m always looking for something more. I feel really bad for them sometimes because I can be very tough, and not happy about matches, even those that I won playing well. I always like to motivate them and motivate myself to go for more."
One additional milestone Svitolina will be chasing in Singapore will be to eclipse former ATP No.4 Andrei Medvedev as the highest-ranked Ukrainian ever. In fact, Svitolina could leave Singapore as the year-end No.1, though that mantle is less of a motivation this season. As she pointed out, if she was chasing No.1 she would not have skipped Tokyo and Wuhan after the US Open.
But Medvedev? She would love to catch him.
"We never give up on our dreams," Svitolina said, when asked about the national character of Ukraine. "We’re very tough and fight very hard. I think I show that a lot, because Ukrainian people, we don’t get too much for free. Even when you’re good at something, you have to work three or four times harder than someone from another country where they get it cheaper or for free. We have to give, like, 300%. It’s in my head and my mentality to be like that.
"This year has already been amazing and the best in my career. It’s something very special and I will try to enjoy. I wish I could stay in this moment forever, but unfortunately, I need to go back on court, move around and work on my game."
Hear more from the tour's leading title-winner below: