NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.5 seed Elina Svitolina took the honors in a blockbuster second round against Venus Williams at the US Open, moving through 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 51 minutes.
"In the end it was a very intense and very solid match," Svitolina told the press afterwards. "When I face her, it's always a challenge because she always fights. You have to earn almost every point. You have to step up your game. If you give her short ball she always takes it on. So you have to be aware. And playing every point, that's, I think, what is challenging to play against her."
Facing the former World No.1 in the first week of a Grand Slam for the second time this year, Svitolina counterpunched superbly to reprise her first-round win at Roland Garros and rack up her third victory in a row over Williams, who would nevertheless thrill the crowd to produce some of the best patches of tennis of the tournament. The result moves the Ukrainian into the third round at Flushing Meadows for the fifth straight year - and means that she has reached at least that stage at every major in the same season for the second time, having also done so in 2017.
In front of a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd all pulling for the home player, Svitolina nonetheless thrived - afterwards admitting that she pretended the loudest cheers were for her. "Definitely was one of the nicest crowd that I played," she laughed. "Of course they were against me, but I just tried to accept this and tried to turn it the other way to say to myself that they're cheering, but they're cheering for me - which actually was not true."
Regardless of the crowd's rooting interest, though, Svitolina could still sense that the occasion was special. "Not every day you get this chance," she smiled. Williams concurred, saying: "Today was a great match. It was well-contested and it was great to have the crowd behind me. It was just a really magical atmosphere."
Svitolina was sharper out of the gates, outfoxing Williams with a low pass and taking advantage of loose errors from the American to break to love immediately. Anticipating and redirecting the Williams pace brilliantly while speeding around the court to chase every ball down, the 24-year-old efficiently blunted her opponent's power to take a 5-2 lead - and the forehand winner with which she sealed the double break also demonstrated how useful her injections of her own pace could be, as well.
Afterwards, Williams was complimentary of her opponent's form. "She always plays extremely well against me," she said. "You know, she can keep that form up and she's got a lot of great things ahead of her. I think there are probably a lot of matches that are winnable for her that she hasn't been able to win. But... she's clearly extremely talented and just can continue to go higher."
Serving for the set, though, Svitolina's forehand wobbled just slightly - giving Williams the opening she needed to make the climax of the opening act a nailbiting affair. With the 39-year-old's backhand suddenly on fire, Williams seized her fourth break chance to keep the set alive before saving three set points on her own serve in the next game.
Keeping a cool head with the insurance break in hand, though, Svitolina would serve far more effectively at the second time of asking, sealing the opening frame as Williams sent a backhand long - the World No.52's 23rd unforced error of the set.
After placing an order for a mid-match espresso, though, Williams perked up considerably. The opening three games of the second set found the two-time champion turning the clock back to her glory days as she produced a backhand slice winner, a forehand volley at full stretch, a delicately finessed counterdrop and an array of sumptuous backhand winners to move up 3-0, saving four break points in a magnificent third game.
But the magic didn't last. Undaunted, Svitolina went back to basics. Serving solidly and going into lockdown mode off the baseline, the Wimbledon semifinalist took the wind out of the sails of Williams's comeback, quieting thw crowd by gradually grinding her way back into the set.
Williams, meanwhile, lapsed back into a stream of errors, offering up 23 as the second set began to slip away from her, the backhand as suddenly unreliable as it had only just been brilliant. A Svitolina forehand pass garnered her the break back, and the WTA Finals champion took the lead as Williams committed her sixth of seven double faults.
Serving to stay in the match, Williams gathered herself for one last valiant stand - and, just as in the first set, it made for a magnificent dénouement. As Svitolina redoubled her defensive efforts, conjuring up a pair of astonishing angles on the run, Williams refused to give in. A remarkable 15-minute game that will undoubtedly be one of the finest of the tournament saw the legendary veteran stave off five match points, coming up with volleys and backhands that had the crowd on their feet.
As had been the case over the course of the day, Svitolina would lose that battle - but win the war. Retaining her focus as she served for the match and nailing her first serves, the former World No.3 shook off the drama that had just passed to take her first match point behind her delivery as Williams sent a final forehand over the baseline.
"She was actually playing incredible," marvelled Svitolina about the closing stages of the match. "My coach said as well that I didn't do much wrong there. So I had to accept and move forward, [not] focus too much on the negative that I had the opportunity - there was one [where] I thought I had the chance, I missed by a millimeter.
"So you have to accept. Tennis is a quick game, especially 5-3 when you are about to close, you have to stay within yourself and give yourself a good chance to come back and earn another opportunity to get the match point and try to take it."
Next up for Svitolina will either be teenage compatriot, No.32 seed Dayana Yastremska, or Rebecca Peterson. An all-Ukrainian tilt against Yastremskawould be highly anticipated, not least by Svitolina herself: "Actually, we are from the same city [Odessa]," she said. "It's unbelievable - we never played, never practiced. I know her a little bit, obviously. We know each other. We speak from time to time... She's been improving very good. I think it's great for her. She has been taking some good players and really showing she's a powerful player. I have to bring my best game. I try to focus only on my game, and it's important for me to bring my best game."