WIMBLEDON, England -- Only nine months after giving birth to daughter Skai, Elina Svitolina finds herself in Thursday’s semifinals. And to do it, the Ukrainian wild card beat World No.1 Iga Swiatek in the last round.
“Yeah, I really don’t know what’s happening right now in my head,” Svitolina said in her on-court interview, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
Later, when asked if she dared to think she could win the title at the All England Club, Svitolina laughed again.
“You crazy?” she said. ”Well, I didn’t think so much about it until you told me this. I know that there are a few matches left to get that trophy. But I don’t want to think so much about this because you need to break down everything to small pieces. I want tomorrow to practice, to work on a few tactical things for my upcoming match, then play that match.”
Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Count Skai as one of the very few who remains unimpressed. She’s at home in Monte Carlo with her two grandmothers and dad Gael Monfils, the French tennis star.
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“I was FaceTiming with her just right after the match actually,” Svitolina said. “She was really distracted with her ice cream, so I was not the priority there. She is still at this age when she doesn’t care if I win or if I lose.”
On Thursday, Svitolina will look to keep up her inspiring run when she takes on unseeded Marketa Vondrousova, while No.2 Aryna Sabalenka faces last year’s runner-up Ons Jabeur.
Here’s a breakdown of the two matchups that will deliver the Wimbledon finalists:
Marketa Vondrousova vs. Elina Svitolina
The top four seeds all made the quarterfinals and were favored to reach the semifinals. Vondrousova is ranked No.42 among Hologic WTA Tour players, while Svitolina is No.76. So how did we wind up with two unseeded players in this semi?
In short, some fantastic tennis. Vondrousova upset No.4 seed Jessica Pegula after trailing 4-1 in the third set -- and Pegula was one point short of 5-1. She is only the third player in the Open Era to reach the women’s finals by defeating four seeded players: No.12 Veronika Kudermetova, No.20 Donna Vekic, No.32 Marie Bouzkova and Pegula. The 24-year-old from the Czech Republic is already a Grand Slam finalist, finishing runner-up to Ashleigh Barty at the 2019 French Open.
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“She’s very tricky,” Pegula said. “She doesn’t give you a lot of rhythm. Obviously, the lefty serve. Her composure is very much the same all the time. You don’t really know if she’s bothered or fired up or negative. Yeah, it’s kind of her style.”
Svitolina defeated three former Grand Slam champions -- Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin and Swiatek -- to reach the third major semifinal of her career. She’s playing like it’s 2019, the last time she reached consecutive major quarterfinals, at Wimbledon and the US Open. Svitolina is the first wild card to reach the women’s quarters in a Grand Slam tournament since Sabine Lisicki made the semifinals in 2011.
Svitolina leads the head-to-head series, 3-2, but Vondrousova won the two most recent meetings -- in the quarterfinals of 2020 Rome and in the semifinals of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, both in straight sets. Vondrousova went on to win the silver medal and Svitolina the bronze.
Both players have demonstrated a remarkable ability to play well in big spots. Svitolina first rose to a career-high of No.3 nearly six years ago and she’s fashioned a winning record (7-6) against No.1 players.
Immediately after beating Pegula, Vondrousova said she couldn’t believe it.
“She is a great player,” Vondrousova said. “I mean, I think everything just went on and, yeah, I just couldn’t hold the tears.”
During a rain delay, Vondrousova calmed herself by chatting with her husband, Stepan Simek, on the phone. He’s at home in Prague. Like Svitolina, she’s happy to have him stay there.
“I think for semis he won’t come,” Vondrousova said. “We’ll see what happens. He has to work. He has to take care of our cat.”
No.2 Aryna Sabalenka vs. No.6 Ons Jabeur
There’s an irresistible force versus an immovable object feeling to this one.
No one’s been better in recent Slams than Sabalenka; no one has been better on grass than Jabeur.
Among WTA Tour players, Jabeur has the most wins on grass over the past three years. She raised that number to 27 on Wednesday with a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1 win over No.3 seed and defending champion Elena Rybakina. The 28-year-old from Tunisia won eight of the last nine games.
It was a sweet result for Jabeur because she was beaten by Rybakina in the final a year ago. It was a heartbreaking loss that was featured in depth on Season 1 of "Break Point".
"Our Tunisian champion" 🇹🇳🙌— wta (@WTA) July 7, 2023
On this day at #Wimbledon 2022, @Ons_Jabeur became the first Arab and North African woman to reach a Grand Slam final!
Break Point: Part 2 streaming only on @netflix pic.twitter.com/XB13Z4aF9n
Now, with a win over Sabalenka, Jabeur would be the first woman to reach back-to-back Wimbledon finals since Serena Williams in 2019.
“I believe last year maybe I wasn’t ready to play this kind of match,” Jabeur said. “I don’t regret last year. It happened for a reason. I always say it. I have learned a lot from the final last year. Definitely very proud of myself for the improvement that I did mentally, physically and with the tennis racquet.”
Sabalenka, meanwhile, defeated No.25 Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals, winning the last four games. Sabalenka has won three of four matches against Jabeur, including the past three, in 2021 at Abu Dhabi, the 2021 Wimbledon quarterfinals and the 2022 WTA Finals in Fort Worth.
“Actually, we practiced here before Wimbledon,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I felt like she’s going to do well here because she played unbelievable tennis on the practice court. I know it’s different in practice than in a match. She was able to bring this level in matches. It’s not like I didn’t expect that.
1 - Aryna Sabalenka is the first player to make the semi-finals of the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Serena Williams in 2016. Stunning. #Wimbledon | @WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/51QSsCkkhx— OptaAce (@OptaAce) July 12, 2023
“She’s a great player. We always had tough battles against each other, very close matches.”
Jabeur’s diverse game seems so much more fluent and fluid on grass. Her last three victories here have come over Grand Slam champions (Bianca Andreescu, Petra Kvitova, Rybakina) and Sabalenka would be the fourth. The last three are especially big hitters.
“I think I showed myself that I can stand up against these [powerful] players,” Jabeur said. “It’s a great proof for me to start the game and to be confident and to go 100 percent. Honestly, I have nothing to lose.”
Sabalenka is the only woman to reach at least the semifinals of the past four Grand Slams. The reigning Australian Open champion has won 17 of 18 matches at this year’s majors, equaling Williams’ feat of 2015. If he beats Jabeur to make her second major final of the season, Sabalenka will overtake Swiatek as the new World No.1 after Wimbledon.
The stakes could not be higher for the World No.2.
“She has really good touch,” Sabalenka said of Jabeur. “Especially on the grass court, all her slices, drop shots work really well here on grass court. I feel like mentally she’s really strong. She’s making history. I think this is the biggest motivation for her.
“I think her tricky game is really, really challenging to play against.”