Elina Svitolina has long since established herself as one of the best players in the world. At the peak of her powers, when she rose to No. 3, Svitolina won numerous titles, beat almost every prominent player and built a brilliant career.
But she has never looked as dangerous at Grand Slam tournaments as she has in the past eight months since returning from maternity leave. Svitolina’s tennis was always too defensive against the best players at the biggest tournaments, but she returned determined to seize the opportunity and play more courageously.
After a spectacular comeback season last year, Svitolina ended up in the chaotic half of the Australian Open draw with a clear chance of reaching her first Grand Slam final. Instead, Svitolina’s hopes were gone just minutes into their fourth-round match.
Three games into her competition with Linda Noskova, Svitolina had to retire with a back injury and was down 3-0.
“I feel like I did everything right,” said Svitolina. “I had a good offseason. I trained really well. Yes, it’s just that these things happen unexpectedly. It’s not like a buildup where I had a lot of back pain, and I expected that. It really came out of nowhere.”
Last year, Svitolina returned in incredible shape after the birth of her daughter Skaï. After a thrilling run to the quarterfinals of the French Open in her first Grand Slam tournament, she immediately followed up with the best Grand Slam run of her career, defeating Iga Świątek en route to the Wimbledon semifinals.
The 29-year-old had not only returned from burnout and maternity leave, but also as a prominent figure in her country after Russia invaded Ukraine. At the end of the season, Svitolina was named WTA Comeback Player of the Year.
Even after Svitolina had to end her season early due to a stress fracture in her ankle, all signs pointed to her returning to top form at the start of the new season.
She first reached the final in Auckland before narrowly losing a great three-set match to Coco Gauff. She started the Australian Open full of confidence and after three rounds; When the top seeds around her fell, Svitolina had conceded just 13 games.
In a fourth-round match against Noskova, all her efforts to prepare for a deep run had failed when she experienced one of the cruel realities of elite sport – injury.
At the end of a long opening game while serving against Noskova, Svitolina felt sharp, stabbing pain in her back. She took a medical timeout after the next game and then had to retire when she realized she simply couldn’t serve anymore.
An hour later, despite the tears in her eyes, she explained in detail her surprise and frustration at an injury that had come out of nowhere.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had this before, such a sharp pain,” she said. “I’ve had a few back injuries before which just left me tired the next match day, but this injury really came out of nowhere. I felt like someone had shot me in the back.”
If the top half of the women’s draw wasn’t yet open, then it was a total duel by early afternoon. Shortly after Svitolina’s retirement, Dayana Yastremska, a Ukrainian qualifier, defeated Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 with a strong performance at Rod Laver Arena.
Azarenka’s departure will mark the first time there will be a finalist in the top half of the Australian Open draw this year. Zheng Qinwen, the 12th seed, is the highest-ranked player remaining in the top half.
As a fresh new season began, it seemed as if a clear hierarchy had been established at the top of women’s tennis as the top players, led by Iga Świątek and Aryna Sabalenka, put in consistent performances. But once this order was established, it fell apart.
The top half of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament was a throwback to an old WTA Tour favorite: delicious, entertaining chaos.
“It’s the first Grand Slam of the year,” said Noskova, who was responsible for the biggest upset of the tournament against top seed Swiatek. “Of course it is very difficult for everyone, especially the seeded players, to assert themselves and play what they should. But of course anything can happen in a tournament like this.”
In the quarterfinals, Noskova and Yastremska will be living proof of the endless possibilities of each draw as they battle for a place in the Australian Open quarterfinals.