BRISBANE, Australia - Elina Svitolina has done it again. The 22-year-old was the only player to beat both reigning No.1s last year and she starts her 2017 season with a bang, beating No.1 Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to advance to the semifinals at the Brisbane International. She'll face No.6 Karolina Pliskova on Friday.
Three quick thoughts after Svitolina's Gold Coast stunner:
1) With her game evolving, Svitolina is poised for a breakout season:
The spotlight tends to follow the WTA young guns who tally big results on the tour's biggest stages, which means it has rarely fallen on the Ukrainian. But year after year she has improved her year-end ranking, steadily climbing to finish in the Top 15 last fall.
22yo Svitolina has shown steady, quiet improvement year-over-year. 2017 poised to be her breakout season. Steady on. pic.twitter.com/4oCrAVUg4W
? WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 5, 2017
A top-notch grinder who is slowly finding comfort in a more aggressive game-style, Svitolina split with her coach Iain Hughes during the off-season and brought on a team of coaches that include Flavia Pennetta's former coach Gabriel Urpi, and former ATP pro Thierry Ascione. She's also added Ana Ivanovic's former hitting partner Andrew Bettles to her team. Last season she added former No.1 Justine Henin as a coaching consultant. The ambition, focus, and work ethic has always been there for Svitolina, but she has been plagued in the past with inconsistency and nerves, often wobbling when she tried to close out sets and matches.
Quietly, Svitolina has shown gradual improvement in all areas and that was on full display against Kerber on Thursday night. Her scrambling ability has always been her strength but now she looks more inclined to step in and take a big cut at the ball when it lands shorter. She looked comfortable trading crosscourt blows with Kerber and her serve was far more effective than the German's as well.
"I can win some matches just being defensive and then attack, like I do most of the time," Svitolina said. "I mean, some people say I'm not aggressive and I not deserve to be where I am. But it's just my style of game, you know. Also, Angie, she's also playing really good defensive, and that's what she improved that she start to be more aggressive, but still, when she's playing Azarenka, for example, she's more defensive and then playing, trying to block her shots.
"It's just the way that I play, and, of course, a little bit more aggressive could be great. But the way I play, I'm really, really happy that I have my own style and not just smacking the balls everywhere."
Following on from last year's upsets of Serena Williams at the Olympics and Kerber in Beijing, Svitolina now holds the distinction as the only player to register three wins over a No.1 since the start of 2015. She also showed a more mature attitude when things looked like they might turn against her. Her frustration boiled over in the second set after getting broken to love at 5-3, but she quickly got her emotions in check and played a tenacious final set to secure the win.
"Playing against her, it's always tough because she's moving good," Kerber said after the match. "So I think this is, I think, the hardest thing. You have to play really consistent and go for it. I think that I did, like, just a few more mistakes than she did."
? SHIKHAR MISRA (@MrShikharMisra) January 5, 2017
"I think I was very aggressive with my shots today," Svitolina said. "Angie, also, she was playing much better than I remember our match in Beijing and more solid, and her serve was more solid. So of course there have been up and down in her game, and in my game, but in the end I think it was very entertaining match. It was lots of tough moments, which make this match very special."
2) Kerber's serve needs work before Melbourne:
The stat that will cause eyebrows to raise will be her 48 unforced errors for the match (along with 39 winners), which is far too high for her counter-punching style. But across her first two matches -- she beat Ashleigh Barty in three sets on Wednesday night -- Kerber's work off the ground should not cause much concern. Sure, there was rust, but that's to be expected in any player's first couple of matches.
Besides, tallying 39 winners against a defender of Svitolina's quality is no small feat. It was good to see Kerber's aggressive intent, which was the key to her 2016 season, still very much in order:
? WTA (@WTA) January 5, 2017
But Kerber's serve, a shot she says she worked hard on over the off-season, was a glaring liability in Brisbane. Over two matches she hit 14 double-faults and struggled to earn cheap and easy points off the shot. Without an effective serve, Kerber is going to find herself in these tough three-set matches against non-top 10 opposition more often -- such as in the first week of a Slam --and top players cannot afford to do that.
Kerber was left to start the points at neutral, and while that may have worked against an erratic Barty, it failed against the ever-consistent Svitolina. Asked about her serve after the match, Kerber shrugged off any concern.
"I'm not worried about my serve," she said. "I mean, I know how to serve good and I know how my serve is, and there are always up-and-downs. I know I can improve it, but that's the second match of the year, the first tournament.
"I played a good match. It was not a bad match. I think we both play on the really high level tonight, so, yeah. Next one."
Kerber heads to the Apia International in Sydney next week.
The semifinalists across the tour's three tournaments this week include Ana Konjuh (19), Jelena Ostapenko (19), and Katerina Siniakova (20). The Grand Slam veterans that remain in the mix are Garbiñe Muguruza (23) and Pliskova (24). It's a trend that continues on the WTA. New blood is always welcome.