Svitolina survives scare

  • Linda Pearce
  • Elizabeth Bai

Of the six women capable of finishing the Australian Open fortnight with the No.1 ranking, it is perhaps Elina Svitolina about whom the least is known. Simona Halep is the incumbent, and Caroline Woznicki, Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova have all been there before. Jelena Ostapenko, like Muguruza, is a reigning Grand Slam champion.

And Svitolina?

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The dogged Ukrainian’s fourth seeding is equal to her highest at a major. Her five WTA singles titles last year were the most on tour, as were her victories over top 10 opponents, while her match wins (53) were second only to the indefatigable Wozniacki (60). She was twice within reach of top spot. 

And now is again.

This year has started positively, with Svitolina undefeated at the Brisbane International, and now into the third round at Melbourne Park. Having swept through her opener 6-3 6-2 against Serbian qualifier Ivana Jorovic, the 23-year-old survived a far more serious challenge from 59th-ranked Katerina Siniakova, recovering from a shaky start and withstanding some heavy, if erratic, hitting to prevail 4-6 6-2 6-1 on a roasting Rod Laver Arena.

“I thought I’m gonna melt today,’’ Svitolina said. “It wasn’t easy, and I was struggling today. Hopefully I can recover. Can’t wait for ice bath.

“I thought she was playing great first set. I gave her just one break… It was my kind-of mistake, so hopefully next round I will be more focused.’’

Svitolina later confirmed that she had been feeling less than 100 per cent due to illness and it had been a “big question” whether she would even be able to take her place in the first round.

Asked if she was worried about her chance for the rest of the tournament, Svitolina said: “I’m relieved that I won today. In the end it doesn't give me the opportunity to play well. I played good tennis in the first match, so you never know. It’s a new day.

“Maybe tomorrow I’m gonna feel better and gonna feel better for my third round. Of course I'm looking forward for that match, and, you know, not every day in the third round, you don't have these opportunities. Yeah, just hopefully my team is going to do everything to make me ready.’’

She earned 20 break points, but could convert only six, hit nine aces among 22 winners to 30, and was overpowered at times by the aggressive Siniakova, the 2013 Australian Open junior finalist who is also an accomplished doubles exponent, was a finalist in Shenzhen in the opening week and was one of eight Czech women in the main draw.

But Svitolina was the steadier player, and ultimately the successful one, advancing in two hours, 14 minutes to the all-Ukrainian affair that will guarantee one a place in the last 16.

The Odessa native may yet be No.1 on Monday week if events fall her way and she reaches a debut Grand Slam final. In which case all of us will know a whole lot more about her by then.

Unforced errors
56 Katerina Siniakova
30 Elina Svitolina

Indeed, if three Premier Five titles, in Dubai, Rome and Toronto, proved that Svitolina is more than capable at big events, she is still awaiting a major breakthrough at a major tournament. Her only two slam quarter-finals have come on the clay of Roland Garros, and a fourth round appearance here would be her first on the blue Plexicushion. 

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To get there, she will need to end the bold run of countrywoman Marta Kostyuk, the 15-year-old qualifier who has already toppled 25th seed Peng Shuai and Australian Olivia Rogowska without dropping a set to make such a splash on debut. The youngest player in either draw will be no pushover, and Svitolina will want to raise a level that against Simiakova - who was brought undone by 56 unforced errors - was middling at best.

Surprisingly, Svitolina said she had not heard of Kostyuk until her win on day one. “It's good, it's pretty cool that I'm playing someone from my country. Yeah, it's gonna be very exciting for me and hopefully I can be ready for that match. It's not every day that I can play someone who's from my country. And especially for Ukrainian supporters it's going to be fun to watch, I guess.’’

The pair has never practised, “because it’s like her second women's tournament in her life. No, I didn't really know her before. I little bit watched her first round. You know, she has nothing to lose, so that's why I know she goes just for everything. You know, like a little bit like headless chicken.

“We'll see. I will try to prepare and be ready for her game. For me it's very important for me to be there with my game and don't really think who is in the other side.’’