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Svitolina unlocks the Keys code

  • Suzi Petkovski

Elina Svitolina has equalled her best showing in a Grand Slam, advancing to the quarterfinals with a topsy-turvy 6-2 1-6 6-1 win over No.17 Madison Keys Monday in Margaret Court Arena.

At 96 minutes, this was a far less draining encounter for the No.6 seed than her previous scrap against Zhang Shuai, when she had treatment on her neck and shoulder and recovered from 0-3 down in the third to win in nearly three hours. 

The explosive Keys had an untroubled passage to their fourth-round meeting, conceding 17 games in three previous matches.

But it was the more battle-weary Ukrainian who sprang out the blocks, breaking in the opening game by winning a 22-shot rally, scampering to a dropshot and stroking a forehand winner crosscourt.

The American sprayed six unforced errors in the first three games and needed 16 minutes to get on the scoreboard for 4-1.

Despite no obvious signs of discomfort, it was Svitolina who called for the physio at 5-2 for treatment on blisters to her left foot. She served out the set in 31 minutes as Keys sent a backhand long.

Svitolina, 24, had never beaten the year-younger Keys before today, losing both encounters on hard courts. The American, by far the bigger server and heavier hitter, belatedly found her range, opening up the court with raking drives and punching winners to open expanse. Landing her big forehand, Keys seemed to have acres of court to hit into.

In a mirror image of the first set, the gritty Svitolina was reduced to spectator status as Keys swept the second set 6-1 in 23 minutes.

A titanic game at 1-all on the Svitolina serve proved the heart of the match. Svitolina survived after 11 deuces, four breakpoints and held on her seventh game point. It would either be the decisive turning point or a Pyrrhic victory. 

Svitolina immediately broke next game for 3-1, aided by a Keys backhand error on breakpoint.

Now Keys would need a repeat performance of of their last Grand Slam meeting at the 2017 US Open, when she recovered from a break down in the final set en route to her first major final. 

But she was still error-prone and unconvincing in forays to the net. Svitolina held with an ace for 4-1, and swept five straight games for the match, finishing in style with a serve-volley winner.

The WTA champion is eyeing a first Grand Slam semifinal from a fourth attempt. She is also a two-time quarterfinalist in Paris. A positive sign: Keys is her first top-20 victim in a major since the now-retired Ana Ivanovic at Roland Garros 2016.

“I’ve been serving really good, returning solid,” Svitolina assessed, on what might get her through this time. “I always try to put pressure on the opponent.

“Just my mind-set in general. I try to be there all the time with my game.” Added the WTA champion: “The Singapore week showed that I can be it there winning big matches.”

It worked for Caroline Wozniacki last January.

Apart from her form, Svitolina has attracted attention for her new romance with Gael Monfils, who was again courtside.

“I want to put it aside,” said Svitolina. “When I step on the court, doesn’t matter match or practice, I always think only about what I need to do. He’s there to support me. That’s it.”
The 23-year-old Keys, a semifinalist here in 2015, was one of five Americans in the round of 16. Only Danielle Collins has advanced to the quarters, with Serena Williams still to play against No.1 Simona Halep in the evening session.

Svitolina faces No.4 Naomi Osaka, also a three-set winner, over Anastasija Sevastova.

“I want to enjoy the day today,” Svitolina said postmatch, declining to preview her next opponent. “I don’t really want to think about the next match now. I did a great job today.”