NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.4 seed Elina Svitolina put on a typically steady and smart performance to quell the challenge of unseeded Evgeniya Rodina 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 22 minutes and match her career-best US Open showing of the third round for the third consecutive year.
Svitolina's all-court game can be deceptive, with the Ukrainian capable of grinding out points with bloody-minded consistency but also willing to step up and pummel the ball for winners. But over the course of a first set in which she comfortably held on to an early break advantage, it became apparent that the 22-year-old's tactical ability to manage the scoreboard momentum of a match is razor-sharp.
There were numerous examples. Trailing 2-4, Rodina missed a dropshot to start her service game off badly. Svitolina responded on the next point with her first advance to the net off the day - a successful one that immediately put her opponent under scoreboard pressure.
The Russian managed to hold that game, but when she began the next game on a better note with a booming return to set up a backhand putaway, Svitolina was again able to step up. The World No.89 attempted a similar aggressive return on the next point - but the No.4 seed had anticipated it, and redirected it for a crosscourt winner of her own. Afterwards, she acknowledged how much she had worked on this aspect of the game: "I think everything has improved, you know, just my game in general - my mental part became better and I handled those big moments better," she said.
In this way, Svitolina slammed the door on Rodina's momentum before it ever had a chance to grow. One of the 28-year-old's finest winners came at the start of the second set: having held to love, she snatched the first point on Svitolina's serve with a backhand down the line. Once again, the Ukrainian responded with a canny and successful net rush.
A Tour-leading five-time titlist in 2017, including the Rogers Cup, Toronto three weeks ago, Svitolina's ability to accelerate when she had the upper hand was similarly effective. Returning at 2-2 in the second set, she switched tactics and upped the pace of a shots, firing a winner down the line on the first point and executing a high-risk forehand winner on her first break point of the set en route to reeling off nine consecutive points to lead 4-2. When Rodina rallied to save four game points, an identical winner again sealed the tussle for Svitolina.
It's down to this scoreboard awareness that, despite just a 55% first serve percentage overall, Rodina was unable to carve out a break point until the World No.4 suffered a small wobble attempting to serve the match out at the first go. By contrast, Svitolina was ruthlessly efficient in converting three of her four opportunities. Overall, the Russian - one of two mothers in the second round at Flushing Meadows, alongside Tatjana Maria - suffered from an inability to balance her own mix of safety and aggression, frequently missing putative winners on key points.
Having scored her career-best third-round Slam performance in her second career major, back at Wimbledon in 2008, Rodina was unable to take advantage of her opponent spurning a match point at 5-2, and sank to her sixth Slam second-round defeat, and third loss in three encounters with Svitolina. The Ukrainian sealed the deal to love in her next service game to set up a third round against No.25 seed Daria Gavrilova or Shelby Rogers.
Afterwards, Svitolina spoke frankly about dealing with the pressure of being spoken of as a title favorite. "It's quite normal to have this, and I would prefer to have on the top and have these kind of expectations than be somewhere out of top 20 or something and be - to don't have that," she pointed out. "So it's part of tennis, part of being there, and for me, I try to handle it. I try to take this challenge and do something about it."