End of whirlwind run for Svitolina after Vondrousova dominates semi-final | Wimbledon 2023

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Here is a stat for you: this was the first time two unseeded women (“ladies”) have reached a Wimbledon semi-final in the Open era. But only one of them is from a country currently ravaged by war. Perhaps it was understandable, then, that the vast majority of the Centre Court crowd was rooting for Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian, recent mother and player with the best rhyming name in tennis, who has been on a storming comeback from maternity leave.

But her dream of bettering her previous semi-final result at the All England Club, in 2019, was not to be. It was far from being, in fact, as she was blown off the court by Marketa Vondrousova, 6-3, 6-3. The Czech will now play her second grand slam final, after a defeat at Roland Garros four years ago.

The two had met five times previously, with Vondrousova triumphing in their most recent encounter at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (Vondrousova went on to win the silver medal, Svitolina the bronze).

But overall Svitolina edged the head-to-head record between the pair, 3-2, before this mostly lopsided encounter: an under-par performance from Svitolina that brought her to the verge of tears in her post-match press conference.

From the off, it could be said that Vondrousova had two advantages. One: she won the coin toss (and chose to receive). Two: the roof was closed, resulting in conditions more suited to her game. But the match got off to an even start, both holding serve comfortably for the first four games, both firing winners. One rally at the net in particular was a delight; it ended with Svitolina landing a lob just long.

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Mid-set the match turned quickly from orderly to oscillation, with a run of three breaks of serve. Vondrousova – who was once the world No 14 but whose ranking has suffered a significant hit after injuries and surgery resulted in a six-month absence from the tour – broke in the fifth game. It was sloppy play from the racket of Svitolina, and her opponent pounced after multiple unforced errors.

The advantage did not last long as Svitolina, now ranked 76 after her own stint away, fought back after a tight deuce game to level at 3-3. But the Ukrainian, with the hopes of a nation on her shoulders – her country’s ambassador was watching from the royal box – was tight, trying almost too hard.

Visibly starting to panic a little, her naturally aggressive game – which has served her so well throughout the past week and a half – was smothered by Vondrousova, four years her junior, who broke again and then held serve to love. Vondrousova’s lefty spin and varied shot-making, switching up heights and speed, continued to flummox her opponent. In particular she targeted Svitolina’s backhand, and broke again to take the set, 6-3.

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Marketa Vondrousova plays a shot
Marketa Vondrousova repeatedly capitalised on a string of unforced errors by her opponent. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Things would only get worse for Svitolina before they briefly improved. Losing seven games in a row would dampen anybody’s spirit, and that’s what happened, with Vondrousova hitting winners from virtually every blade of grass on the court. Second-set scoreline: 4-0.

It was then that Svitolina scrambled and strained, strove and stretched, trying to achieve the seemingly impossible. She broke. Then she broke again. The entirety of Centre Court screamed its approval, not least because the match had lasted only around an hour, but also because the spectators were ready to witness a feelgood miracle.

Svitolina had hauled herself back on serve, 3-4, and just as it seemed momentum was with her and she might manage to push on for a third set – that the dream might still be alive – she collapsed once more, rapidly. She was broken – metaphorically and literally. This allowed Vondrousova to serve out for the match, which she did with minimal complication.

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In her press conference, Svitolina choked back tears. “I wish some of the games today I played better. I think in my matches before, I played well.” She had overcome the world No 1, Iga Swiatek, in the previous round. “Right now, I am just really upset I couldn’t play the final.

“I tried to fight back but I guess I rushed a little. And I didn’t serve well in that game at 4-3 … Marketa played great. She was really patient and played great points until the very end.”

Elina Svitolina shows her emotions on her way to defeat by Marketa Vondrousova
Elina Svitolina cannot hide her emotions as she feels the semi-final slipping away from her. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Asked about the pressure of the political situation, she said: “It was a lot of responsibility. A lot of tension. Sometimes it can get too much. But I don’t want to make it an excuse for why I lost.”

For Vondrousova’s part, she was generous in appraisal of her opponent, who is much loved and much respected on tour. “She’s such a fighter,” she said of Svitolina; something which was proved today, if only for too brief a period of the match.

Vondrousova was “crazy nervous”, she said, of playing for her first time on Centre Court. On Saturday, she will be back there again, facing Ons Jabeur in her first Wimbledon final. How will she prepare? Still breathing heavily from her exertions, she thought for a second and then responded: “I’m just gonna chill.”

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