NEW YORK — For the past nine days, familiar names and exciting new ones have dominated the US Open headlines. From the early exits of defending champions Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic to the rise of teenage sensation Coco Gauff, from the Cinderella runs of Taylor Townsend and Kristie Ahn to the — er — antics of Daniil Medevev and Nick Kyrgios, there has been no shortage of compelling storylines in New York.
So you might have missed Elina Svitolina, who has quietly been playing some of the best, most consistent tennis of the tournament. On Tuesday afternoon, in front of a relatively sparse crowd on Arthur Ashe, the 24-year old set up a potential semifinal showdown with Serena Williams with a dominant 6-4, 6-4 victory over Johanna Konta.
How well has she been playing in the year’s final Slam? Ask Venus Williams, who she beat in the second round, or Madison Keys, who hadn’t lost at night in Queens until she faced Svitolina in the Round of 16, or even actor Tom Hiddleston, who came to cheer on his fellow Brit in the quarters and left speechless after the defeat. Svitolina has yet to drop a set this fortnight.
“I have played her three times or four, I think,” said Konta after the match. “Haven’t beat her yet. I do feel that was the probably the best I felt her play against me. She played so well, to be honest.”
Svitolina doesn’t have the fastest serve or the strongest net presence, but she methodically and tactfully wears down her opponents. She won the longest rally of the tournament (including men) thus far in a 40-shot classic with Whitney Osuigwe in the opening round.
Currently ranked No. 5 in the world, she’s been on the cusp of elite status for some time. She has won a Tour-high nine titles since 2017, including her biggest title to date, the 2018 WTA Finals in which she beat Sloane Stephens in the title match. Svitolina advanced to her first major semifinals at Wimbledon this summer, where she lost to eventual champion Simona Halep. She became the first Ukrainian woman to ever reach the final four at the US Open with her win on Tuesday. It was the latest in a string of firsts for her and country, and her excitement at each achievement is apparent. After she clinched the win Tuesday, she raised her arms in victory, then brought her fists under her chin, tilted her head back and smiled.
“It’s not every day you’re playing quarterfinal of the Grand Slam,” she said afterwards. “And to win that, it’s something special. Yeah, just very happy the way I handled the pressure.
“I think all my career I have been going step by step. I was going very slowly. Still, I was quite consistent, I would say, but I had some tough matches round of 16, quarterfinals before I started to win them.”
Earlier this year, she and her boyfriend Gael Monfils, who will be playing a quarterfinal match of his own on Wednesday, went public with their relationship. The revelation has raised her profile off the tennis court, thanks in large part to their joint Instagram account which documents their travels around the world and life on tour for their nearly 100,000 followers.
He has been a fixture at her matches, cheering her on from her box. She is frequently asked about him in post-match interviews and news conferences — although Monfils rarely fields such questions. Svitolina gives him some credit for improvements in her game, but is emphatic he is not the only factor.
“He’s hitting pretty strong and very heavy so I think definitely it helps me to practice with him,” she said. “But, you know, I need to find a balance, because if I only practice with him, I’m going to be only in defense most of the time, and that’s not so good. So I have to find balance when I’m training with him and also train with my coach to do the attacking shots.”
Svitolina will take on Serena Williams or Wang Qiang next. She has a 1-4 career record against Williams, but won their last meeting at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and is 3-1 against Qiang, including a win at the 2018 US Open in the second round. While Williams, who is chasing her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, would be the more tantalizing opponent for fans, Svitolina insists she doesn’t care who she faces.
“Definitely it’s a big challenge to play against [Williams] but it doesn’t really matter who I’m going to play in semifinal,” she said. “[It] is a challenge. [The] person who reaches the semifinal is playing well. You have to bring your best game to beat them. Doesn’t matter who is going to be in the semifinal.”