ROME, Italy - Elina Svitolina roared to her eighth career title at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, fighting past a streaking Simona Halep in three sets to not only take home the biggest clay court trophy of her career, but also firmly establish herself atop the Porsche Race to Singapore leaderboard.
Svitolina will return to the Top 10 on Monday's rankings, having first broken in back in February when she won her first Premier 5 title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The win in Rome brings her up to a tour-leading four titles and 31 match wins in 2017.
All those big numbers, including five Top 5 wins, make her one to watch at the French Open, where she reached the quarterfinals in 2015.
The 22-year-old sat down with WTA Insider to discuss her evolution as a player, the source of her fighting spirit, and what the tennis world ought to know about her heading into Paris:
WTA Insider: Elina, first of all congratulations; how does it feel to pick up another pretty big title this year, and doing it with the week you had here, which was not easy?
Svitolina: I’m very happy that I could handle all the pressure, especially since I had some very tough matches early in the tournament. I think one of the toughest was the tiebreak against Alizé [Cornet] (Svitolina won 13-11), and then, of course, the tiebreak against Karolina [Pliskova] (Svitolina saved set points to win it 11-9). It was very tough, and today, I was trying to fight, trying to stay in the moment, just so I could give everything.
WTA Insider: Where do you find your confidence is coming from these days? Is it from match wins, tournament wins, the work you put in? What allows you to have the belief that in the tight moments, you’re going to pull it off?
Svitolina: I don’t take too much confidence from matches; it needs to come from my mental strength, because you never know what’s going to happen. I always try to fight and not think negatively, only positively. I think I have to keep working, keep moving forward, even do something new or whatever can help my tennis. That’s what I’m doing, and I think that’s helped a lot.
WTA Insider: Watching the final, it’s so clear that you’re one of the players who won’t beat yourself. Other players have to show up and bring their game against you. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment, that you don’t beat yourself, spray errors and hand over matches?
Svitolina: It was happening like this when I played juniors, so I worked very hard at this. I still have lots of things I need to improve on the mental side. That’s what I’m trying to do with my team; every day, we’re working on it, and it’s the same on court as off court. It’s a big part for me, and I pay lots of attention to it, trying to be tough on court.
WTA Insider: It shows. Talk about the last two years on court, because you’ve been a consistent Top 20 player for quite some time. The last two seasons in particular, especially when you think about the people you’ve hired as coaches or consultant, these are things that can be signals that you’ve perhaps changed your ambition, or you’ve decided to put new emphasis on having the best possible team to unlock something in your game. What triggered these changes for you?
Svitolina: For me, I always tried to take something from each coach or each consultant that I had. I always like to hear their opinions. For example, I’ll ask my fitness coach what he thinks about my tennis; he doesn’t know much about it because he didn’t play the game, but it’s always nice to hear advice from different people that I respect.
I try to analyze and figure out what’s going to help me. Sometimes, it’s important to hear different opinions because you never know how it looks to them. At the end, I try to find the best things for me and see how that works.
WTA Insider: Have there ever been surprising things you’ve heard about your game?
Svitolina: There’ve definitely been some strange things, but that’s their opinion. It’s not always like I’m going to take everything someone says with me. I try to listen to it, but then see if it’s really true. Everyone has different opinions, and I really try to choose what works for me the best.
WTA Insider: Do you feel like you’ve taken any risks with respect to evolving your game, like perhaps a coach told you something that sounded strange but you tried it anyway?
Svitolina: There’ve been some things that I needed to change. For example, 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. 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.
There’s fitness coach, tennis coach, physio; they all give their opinions, and they try to make you feel your best. But when you’re on the court, it’s up to me to make it all come together. That’s the most difficult part, and that’s why it’s very important to find this zone where everything comes together.
WTA Insider: How ambitious do you think you are?
Svitolina: Oh, very. [laughs] For me, there’s always something that’s not good enough. 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, and do something more. I’m always trying to go for a new level.
WTA Insider: That’s not so bad; you’re the boss, so you’re able to demand more of the people you hire. But in your press conference, you were asked about being a Ukrainain athlete and the pride you have in that. What makes you Ukrainian? What is it about the country that you take with you wherever you go?
Svitolina: First of all, I’m a big fan of Ukrainain food! You’ll need to try borscht, the soup. Everything is so tasty, and a little bit Russian as well, like pelmeni. We have lots of different stuff, so next time when you come to Ukraine…
WTA Insider: When I come to cover a Fed Cup tie, I’ll be sure to do that.
Svitolina: Exactly. But I always love to come back to my country. I love to play in front of the Ukrainian people, and I enjoyed in particular the tie before last that I played in Fed Cup. I didn’t expect so many people to be there, rooting for me. It was really a big deal for them to come and see me play. It felt really special, because I’d never really experienced that before. I was impressed by that.
WTA Insider: Would you say that there is a national character in Ukraine that you share?
Svitolina: We never give up on our dreams. 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 that 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.
WTA Insider: There’s been a lot of discussion about French Open favorites, but my question to you is: you’re No.1 in the Porsche Race to Singapore leaderboard. You lead the tour in match and tournament wins. You’re No.1 in a bunch of different statistical categories. There’s going to be some more attention. Do you feel that fans and media know you, like that they know Elina Svitolina?
Svitolina: [shakes head] I hope so! [laughs] After all this, I hope so.
WTA Insider: What do you want them to know?
Svitolina: I love being a part of all of this and that it’s amazing that it’s all happening for me now. 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. There’s a new tournament every week, and there will be big challenges.
WTA Insider: How do you intend to celebrate? Because this is a pretty good city for celebrating.
Svitolina: I’ll finally have time with my team to go for dinner. We’re usually in a rush to go to the next tournament. We’re going to go to the city and enjoy; there’s so many nice places here, and so it’s actually pretty lucky that we’re in Rome. I will enjoy it so much, and I’ll finally get to eat some ice cream, because I haven’t had any all week. Ice cream, pizza, and pasta, and everything!
Hear more from Svitolina in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: