NEW YORK, September 3, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King, for whom the National Tennis Center where the United States Open is played is named after, once said that “pressure is a privilege.” So, it should come as no surprise how difficult it is for any player to achieve the No. 1 ranking in tennis – and maintain it. Indeed, but what an opportunity it is to get there and stay there.
This year marks the third straight year in which the four majors have been won by four different women. And, with World No. 1 and defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka eliminated, it marks 13 straight majors without a woman defending a major singles title.
Elina Svitolina, the fifth seed from Ukraine, who faced No. 16 seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain, has come close. She achieved a career-best ranking of No. 3 back on Sept. 11, 2017, and is headed back to No. 3 next week. Meanwhile, eighth seed Serena Williams of the United States, now 37, first rose to No. 1 all the way back on July 8, 2002 – before Coco Gauff was even born. Williams has won the US Open six times – including a three-year run from 2012-14. Her 319 weeks ranked No. 1 is third all time behind Steffi Graf’s 377 and Martina Navratilova’s 332.
When Svitolina and Konta walked out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium under bright, sunny skies Tuesday afternoon for their quarterfinal match, at stake was a first-time US Open semifinal berth to the winner. Both had played good tennis during this New York fortnight and each amassed some good wins during their first four matches: two-time US Open champion Venus Williams, 32nd seed Dayana Yastremska and 10th seed Madison Keys for Svitolina, and 33rd seed Zhang Shuai and third seed Karolina Pliskova for Konta.
As another Hall of Famer, Chrissie Evert, noted during her ESPN television commentary, Svitolina makes her opponents work hard for their points – and she did just that against Konta. The Ukrainian beat Konta, 6-4, 6-4, to advance against either eighth seed Serena Williams of the United States or 18th seed Wang Qiang from China. Svitolina improved to 5-0 lifetime against Konta and has won 16 of her last 19 major singles matches, both impressive statistics.
As the 49-minute first set unfolded, both Svitolina and Konta showed different reactions to pressure: Konta displayed a tendency to overhit, while Svitolina seemed to get too passive with her shot selection. At 5-4 on Svitolina’s serve, Konta saved a set point with what one tennis writer described via Twitter as “a filthy delicate” backhand volley drop-shot. However, Svitolina converted on her second opportunity when Konta’s backhand slice sailed long and took that momentum with her into the next set.
On serve at 2-all in the second set, Svitolina broke Konta in the fifth game when the Briton hit an unforced error off a forehand return. But, Konta got the break back in the next game when she forced an error upon Svitolina, who was unable to convert a backhand return off a drop shot at the net. However, Konta promptly was broken at love and Svitolina took advantage of her huge opportunity. She went ahead 5-3 when Konta committed an unforced error trying to hit a forehand volley. In the next game, Konta saved two match points that prolonged the match and gave her some hope. Finally, Svitolina served out the one hour and 40 minute victory and won it on her third match point try when Konta hit a forced error backhand.
During her on-court interview with ESPN’s Pam Shriver, Svitolina said her approach to winning was to take it “one point at a time.” Good strategy.
“It’s amazing (to reach the semifinals), it was a very, very tough match. I’m very happy with the way I handled the pressure today,” said Svitolina. “I stayed calm and I’m happy with the way I closed the match.”
Against Konta, Svitolina struck four aces and hit 16 winners to only 13 unforced errors – not big numbers by any means compared to Konta’s 24 winners and 35 unforced errors – but they were efficient.
With a bit of prompting by Shriver, Svitolina gave credit to her boyfriend, French tennis star Gaël Monfils, who’s been sitting in her box during each of her matches. She said he’s been inspiring her to succeed. “We are pushing each other and trying to enjoy each other’s victories. Now, it’s time for him to step up his game, too.” The 13rd seed Monfils will play 24th seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in a men’s quarterfinal singles match on Wednesday afternoon and, no doubt, Svitolina will be there leading the cheers on her day off.
Svitolina, who is the first Ukrainian to reach a major semifinal as well as the first from her country to reach a US Open semifinal, improved her season win-loss record to 28-15. Earlier this summer, she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and has also reached the semifinal round at Doha, Dubai and Indian Wells. At the US Open, Svitolina has handled a tough draw flawlessly, and round by round, she just keeps handling the pressure of the moment – and coming up clutch.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 3, 2019
Mertens-Sabalenka through to doubles semifinals
No. 4 seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus became the first team to reach the women’s doubles semifinals. Playing on Louis Armstrong Stadium Tuesday afternoon, Mertens and Sabalenka defeated the 12th seeds Duan Yingying and Zheng Saisai, both from China, 6-4, 6-3. Mertens and Sabalenka outpointed their opponents 64-51 during the one hour and 16 minute quarterfinal-round match.
Wednesday women’s schedule
Singles quarterfinals / Arthur Ashe Stadium
No. 13 Belinda Bencic vs. No. 23 Donna Vekic, noon.
No. 15 Bianca Andreescu vs. No. 25 Elise Mertens, 7 p.m.