Q&A with Elina Svitolina, 19, the WTA's highest-ranked teenager
While the English-speaking media has focused on Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, Laura Robson and Madison Keys as the top prospects of the WTA's Generation Next, Elina Svitolina has quietly compiled a résumé worth recognizing.
The 19-year-old Ukrainian won a 125K Series title in India in 2012 and the Baku Cup in 2013, making her the only teen with a title in the last two years. (She's also won six ITF titles.) The 2010 junior French Open champion improved her ranking by 116 spots last season to finish at No. 40, and this week she supplanted Keys, 19, as the top-ranked teenager after making the fourth round of the Sony Open.
Before the Miami tournament, Svitolina lost to No. 11 Ana Ivanovic in a third-set tiebreaker in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open. Here are highlights of that match (via TheMsharapova2):
Now ranked a career-high 35th, Svitolina this year has recorded her first three victories over top-20 players, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Australian Open en route to her first third-round appearance at a Grand Slam tournament, Roberta Vinci at the Paris Indoors and Bouchard at the Sony Open.
Svitolina has become a reliable competitor. She's won her last eight matches against lower-ranked players, including a 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (5) victory over Jarmila Gajdisova in the first round of the Family Circle Cup on Monday. Svitolina will play Stephens in the second round on Wednesday; the 21-year-old American won their only previous meeting, 7-5, 6-4 in the third round of the Australian Open in January.
I caught up with Svitolina earlier in the year to learn more about the budding star.
SI.com: How did you get into tennis?
Svitolina: My brother [Yulian Svitolin] was a professional tennis player and he's nine years older than me. I was at the courts all the time just having fun with the kids. I always liked the game. So my parents signed me up in a group with small kids and I started when I was 6 or 7. I was jealous because my parents were going to the tournaments with my brother. I wanted to get better so I could travel with them. My parents helped me a lot and my brother helped me a lot, even now.
SI.com: At what point did you realize that tennis was more than a hobby and that you might actually be able to become a professional like your brother?
Svitolina: I didn't really think about it. I was just trying to get better because my brother was away all the time with my father and my mom. I think around 7 or 8 I started playing national tournaments and I was first or second all the time. It was a tough time, practicing in Ukraine. At 13, I moved to Kharkiv because I got a sponsor there. I think it all started there. It's hard to practice in Ukraine because the federation doesn't help us much. So I moved to Belgium to the Justine Henin Academy, and now I'm in Nice, France, at the ISP Academy.
SI.com: Does that mean you're fluent in French?
Svitolina: I understand everything, but now I'm trying to learn to speak it.
SI.com: How do you feel about your success since turning pro in 2010? Has it come too fast, or not fast enough?
Svitolina: Of course I wish I was top 10 now [laughs]. That's a nice dream. But now I'm trying to play my best and work hard at the tournaments. Everything is working. The offseason is paying off. I worked a lot with my fitness coach. Now it's just about working and showing everything on the court.
SI.com: What's the most important part of your game?
Svitolina: Just fighting. To find the way to win. No one is going to give you the points as a gift.
SI.com: You're part of an exciting group of youngsters. Do you measure your success against their results?
Svitolina: I don't really measure against other players my age. I'm just trying to work and play match by match. I'm not really focused on my ranking. Just focused on my game. If you play your game, if you have confidence, the ranking and everything else will come.
SI.com: Did you look up to specific players growing up?
Svitolina: Kim Clijsters.
SI.com: Do you think you play like her?
Svitolina: Everyone has their own way of playing. I've been trying to get something from each player who is doing great, like Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka. They are great players and they deserve to be on top.
SI.com: What have been your biggest wins?
Svitolina: Beating Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Australian Open this year gave me confidence in my game. Beating Dominika Cibulkova [6-4, 6-3 in the first round] at the U.S. Open last year was also a great win. It's great to beat these kinds of players.
SI.com: What's your best surface?
Svitolina: It's hard to say. I won junior Roland Garros, but I won my two WTA titles on hard courts.
SI.com: Is it safe to say you're pretty confident on clay?
Svitolina: It's important to play tournaments to be confident. It's all about confidence and how you feel on that surface. You just have to get used to it.
SI.com: If you could pick a Grand Slam tournament to win, which would it be?
Svitolina: U.S. Open. Everything is just perfect there. The atmosphere is amazing and I love New York. It's one of my favorite cities.
SI.com: Which player are you most likely to be seen having dinner with?
Svitolina: I usually go with my coach, but if it's a player, it would be [Fed Cup teammate] Olga Savchuk.
SI.com: Speaking of Fed Cup, what was it like to see Serena Williams in Kharkiv for Ukraine's tie against the U.S. in 2012? Were you surprised she decided to play?
Svitolina: It was so surprising. We didn't expect she would come to Kharkiv. So my first Fed Cup experience was against Serena [who defeated Svitolina 6-2, 6-1]. It was a great experience. I was a new player on the WTA, and I wanted to see what it was like playing a player like her.
SI.com: Was there a moment after you turned pro when you realized you were good enough to make it on the WTA Tour?
Svitolina: I don't think it's about any specific moment. You get experience and when you play the top players, you find out what you need to work on. Grand Slams are also important to show your game. It's just all about experience and it takes time to gain that confidence.
SI.com: What's your favorite song on your iPod?
Svitolina: Stay by Rihanna.
SI.com: When's the last time you went to a concert?
Svitolina: Seven years ago. It was my first and last concert. It was a Russian singer. I'm really sad I missed Michael Jackson in concert. I really regret I never got to see him.
SI.com: I see you have an iPhone. What's your favorite app?
SI.com: Are you a superstitious person?
Svitolina: Yes. I always try to put my shoes on the same way.
SI.com: Now for the big question: Roger or Rafa? Svitolina: Roger. He's so classy. He's so perfect. All the time I see him and I go to my coach and I say, "Hey, this guy is too perfect." He's just walking, doing everything so perfect.