Elina Svitolina interview: Back to her best and looking to halt Serena Williams' charge at a record grand slam

The Ukrainian plays her second consecutive grand slam semi-final on Thursday when she faces the American in the US Open

Sept 3, 2019; Flushing, NY, USA;  Elina Svitolina of Ukraine hits to Johanna Konta of the United Kingdom in a quarterfinal match on day nine of the 2019 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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If someone would have told Elina Svitolina in May, that by September, she will have made two grand slam semi-finals, she probably wouldn’t have believed it.

The 24-year-old Ukrainian saw her strong start to the 2019 season derailed by a right knee injury that limited her French Open preparations to just two matches within a two-month period. By the time Wimbledon came around in July, Svitolina was still recovering, and was 0-2 on grass entering the Championships.

Grass is a surface where your knees absorb the most punishment, and she had no expectations at the start of Wimbledon. She had lost all four major quarter-finals she had previously contested, and had only made the second week once before at the All England Club.

Yet that all changed within a couple of weeks, as Svitolina, the reigning WTA Finals champion, marched to the last-four at Wimbledon, finally ending her grand slam quarter-final hoodoo, before she surrendered to eventual champion Simona Halep.

"It wasn't easy because people and the media and the fans were reminding me I'm not winning so much," Svitolina told The National during Wimbledon.

“But look at the beginning of the year, I made quarter-finals [of the] Australian Open, then three semis in a row. But then I had the injury. I was trying to come back, I was working really hard, but it wasn’t easy.

“I think all the media didn’t make it easy for me either. So I had to stay very strong mentally. It’s experience as well. You have to really isolate yourself from what’s going on around you.

“Of course, people are going to talk and you cannot really escape this. Because you go to the press conference, people asking you, even the people on the street are asking you, ‘When are you going to start winning?’ They’re big fans but still, ‘When are you going to start winning?’”

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine plays against Johanna Konta of Great Britian during their Women's Singles Quarterfinals match at the 2019 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 3, 2019. / AFP / Kena Betancur
Elina Svitolina onher way to a US Open quarter-final victory over Johanna Konta. AFP

Svitolina did start winning, and on Thursday will play her second consecutive grand slam semi-final – this time at the US Open – where she squares off against Serena Williams at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday.

“I think I'm generally stronger. Mentally I'm handling the pressure points better,” Svitolina says.

Svitolina is yet to drop a set this fortnight in New York, chalking up victories over two-time champion Venus Williams, 2017 runner-up Madison Keys, No 16 seed Johanna Konta and No 32 seed Dayana Yastremska. Svitolina will next attempt to halt Serena's assault on a record-equalling 24th grand slam title.

In their most recent meeting, at the Rio Olympics three years ago, Svitolina shocked Serena in the last-16, running down balls and absorbing the American’s supreme power to triumph in straight sets.

Heading into Thursday’s semi-final, Svitolina is probably as prepared as she has ever been to take on a powerful opponent, thanks to her frequent practices with boyfriend Gael Monfils, the French world No 13, who is also enjoying a strong US Open (he faces Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals on Wednesday night).

Svitolina often hits with Monfils, and says they usually discuss their next opponents with each other before they even talk to their coaches about it. On paper, they seem like polar opposites. Monfils is the arguably the greatest showman to grace a tennis court, and approaches the sport with a laidback attitude. Svitolina relies on the fundamentals, hitting consistently and wearing down her rivals with her relentless defence.

The romance seems to have rubbed off on each other. Monfils, aided by his new coach Liam Smith, has had a fairly consistent 2019, while Svitolina seems more relaxed. Before she stepped on court for her US Open fourth-round match on Sunday, which coincided with Monfils’ 33rd birthday, he told her “this is extra motivation for you, if you don’t win, don’t come back”.

“We speak a lot, we share a lot our experiences," Svitolina says of her relationship with Monfils. "That doesn’t mean that I take everything he says, because the way he approaches things is very different, he’s done it all his life.

“But he shares a lot about the experiences he’s had with injuries, tries to help me as well to open up, and to try to learn something about myself, which is the most important thing I think.

“He always leaves me with the end decision, that I decide what I’m going to do, but because I’m not really like a speaking-so-much person, and he is actually, it’s good that he makes me talk a lot. When you talk, you discover something new about yourself. And in the end I make the decision for myself, what I think is best, and then if I fail, it’s my fault.”

Svitolina says it is a big advantage that she gets to train with Monfils, who hits a heavier ball she would not normally get from her other training partners. She even practices his signature 360-smash hot shot. “Actually this morning I did it. Not as good, though,” she concedes with a smile. “I turn and then I hit.”

“I need to find a balance because if I only practice with him, I'm going to be only in defence most of the time, and that's not so good, either. So I have to find balance when I'm training with him, also train with my coach [Andrew Bettles] to do the attacking shots as well. It helps, but I have to adjust, as well."

Monfils and Svitolina, or "G.E.M.S.life" as they are commonly referred to because of their shared Instagram account that has nearly 100,000 followers, are not afraid of sharing their relationship with the public, and when they briefly had problems midseason and deactivated their  account, fans noticed immediately and were relieved when they returned.

“I was surprised by the people, that they were really happy to see us back,” says the world No 5.

“We got so many messages, so many comments, they were happy that the account is back. We try to do something nice to give back. It’s not always easy because obviously there are some haters, or people who tell us we are spending too much time on social media. But I don’t think so.

“Now the world is about social media, and how we learn. We learn much more now than before and that’s how you share as well with the fans, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s very different. You get used to it very quickly, and it becomes part of the relationship, becomes part of you.”

Svitolina, who picked up her biggest title to date last year at the season-ending championships in Singapore, is on track to qualify as one of the year's top-eight players for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen in October. An undefeated champion in Shenzhen will pocket a whopping US$4.75 million (Dh17.4m), the biggest paycheque ever in tennis.

“I think it’s a massive deal for women’s tennis,” Svitolina says . “It’s a big motivation for us to play, or at least to compete for the WTA Finals first. It’s a great step for the WTA and it’s a great investment. I’m really thankful that it’s moving forward and it’s something that makes a big difference in women’s tennis in general.”