By David Zakhodin
When it was revealed in early 2017 that Serena Williams was expecting a child following her Australian Open victory, the intrigue around women’s tennis soared. For months now, the narrative has depicted a “wide open” field of contenders looking to make their mark while their greatest competitor sits on the sidelines. Whether Serena’s dominance is good or bad for women’s tennis is perhaps an argument for another day, but there is no denying that her absence has created a different kind of excitement around every Major tournament that may not have previously emerged.
If you had thrown out the name Jelena Ostapenko prior to Roland Garros, I would have probably guessed that she was an up-and-coming Latvian figure skater for the 2018 Winter Olympics as opposed to being the next French Open champion. Garbine Muguruza was having the worst twelve months of her career before she came surging out of nowhere to win Wimbledon. So with all this uncertainty in the women’s game, dare we even guess who might triumph at the year’s last Major in New York?
Historically, we indeed predicted the Rafa - Stan and Roger - Cilic French and Wimbledon finals. But it doesn’t take a genius to predict Rafa to win the French and Roger to win Wimbledon. It may, however, require a bit more digging to identify the woman who will raise the U.S. Open Trophy in early September. Among the many women looking to break through and win their first Major title, one stood out. In a season littered with inconsistent play and extreme fluidity among the rankings, one woman has made history with her play outside the Majors. Her fierce play from the back of the court has recently catapulted her to a career-high ranking of world number four, and she is only 22-years-old. Elina Svitolina will win the 2017 U.S. Open.
The young Ukrainian, while not having played her best at the Majors this year, has indeed demonstrated that she can play her best tennis at the highest level. She is the first player ever to win three “Premier 5” events in the same season and accomplished that feat with a resounding victory this past Sunday against Caroline Wozniacki. Not only has Svitolina positioned herself to contend for year-end world number one, but she is peaking at the right time. Once known as a player who preferred clay, Svitolina has used her aggressive game to become just as dangerous on the American hard courts. When yesterday’s final in Toronto was tied at four games in the first set, Svitolina vehemently took the match out of Wozniacki’s hands and registered a resounding 6-4, 6-0 victory by winning eight straight. This is the sort of big-match confidence required for a woman who has yet to get past the quarterfinal of any Major.
Perhaps more crucial than level of play going into the U.S. Open is one’s mental game. For the likes of other top WTA players such as Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, and Karolina Pliskova (the current world number one), that mental edge has been largely absent at the Majors this year. Credit to Kerber for having already won two last year while Serena was on tour, but the latter two have not exactly been “clutch” when it has counted. Halep choked away the French Open final after being up a break in both the second and third sets, and Pliskova didn’t necessarily win anything to truly deserve the number one ranking. So who better to step up than young Svitolina? She has the game, the competitive fire, and the confidence to finally make a deep run at a Major and leave the competition in the dust just as she left Wozniacki yesterday.
As mentioned previously, Svitolina made history with her victory in Toronto. In the nine-year history of Premier 5 level tournaments on the WTA Tour, no one had been able to win three in one season. Maybe Serena would have if she cared about anything outside the Majors, but alas she doesn’t. Svitolina’s feat demonstrates that her ceiling is perhaps higher than her other Top Ten rivals, and the U.S. Open will be her best opportunity to prove just that. Once she walks out on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the bright New York City lights, Elina Svitolina’s electrifying game style will energize the crowd and allow her to become the success story everyone cheers for at the Open. When she does indeed raise that trophy, just remember you heard it here first.