Elina Svitolina’s cruel injury sparks delicious Australian Open chaos
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina sobs after a back injury forces her to forfeit her singles match against Czech Republic’s Linda Noskova on day nine of the Australian Open. Photograph: Martin Keep/AFP/Getty Images
- Former world No. 3 withdraws injured while trailing 0-3 in Rd 4
- Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka defeated 7-6 (8-6), 6-4
Elina Svitolina has long established herself as one of the best players in the world. At the peak of her powers, scaling as high as No. 3, Svitolina won numerous titles, beating nearly every prominent player and carving out a brilliant career.
But she has never seemed as dangerous in the grand slam tournaments as in the past eight months since her return from maternity leave. Svitolina’s tennis was always too defensive against the best players in the biggest tournaments, but she returned determined to seize the moment and play with more bravery.
After a spectacular comeback season last year, Svitolina landed in the chaotic half of the Australian Open draw with a clear opportunity to reach her first grand slam final. Instead, within minutes of her fourth-round match, Svitolina’s hopes were gone.
Three games into her contest with Linda Noskova, Svitolina was forced to retire with a back injury while trailing 0-3.
“I feel like I was doing everything right,” said Svitolina. “I had a good off-season. I’ve been training well. Yeah, it’s just things like this unexpectedly happen. It’s not like a buildup where I had a huge pain in my back, and I expected this one. It came out of nowhere.”
Last year, Svitolina returned in incredible form after giving birth to her daughter, Skaï. After a rousing run to the quarter-finals of the French Open in her first grand slam tournament back, she immediately followed it up with the best grand slam run of her career, defeating Iga Świątek en route to the Wimbledon semi-finals.
The 29-year-old had returned not only from burnout and maternity leave but also as a prominent public figure in her country after Russia invaded Ukraine. At the end of the season, Svitolina was crowned the WTA Comeback Player of the Year.
Even after Svitolina had been forced to prematurely end her season due to a stress fracture in her ankle, all evidence suggested she had returned to top form at the start of the new season.
She began by reaching 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, as the top seeds fell around her, Svitolina had conceded just 13 games.
One game into her fourth round against Noskova, her efforts to prepare herself for a deep run had come to nothing as she experienced one of the cruel realities of elite sports – injury.
At the end of a lengthy opening game on her serve against Noskova, Svitolina felt sharp, shooting pains in her back. She took a medical time out after the next game, and then when she realized she could not serve, she was forced to retire.
An hour later, despite the tears welling in her eyes, she explained her surprise and frustration at an injury that had come out of nowhere.
“This one, I think I never had that before, the shooting pain like this,” she said. “I had some injuries to my back before where it just was tiredness the next day of the match, but this one was out of nowhere. I felt like someone shot me in the back.”
If the top half of the women’s draw wasn’t already open, then by early afternoon, it was a total free-for-all. Shortly after Svitolina’s retirement, Dayana Yastremska, a Ukrainian qualifier, picked off Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 with a gritty performance on Rod Laver Arena.
With the departure of Svitolina and Azarenka, the two most prolific players left in the top half, a first-time finalist will be in the top half of the Australian Open draw this year.
Of the remaining six players left, with two fourth-round matches left tonight, 12th seed Zheng Qinwen is the only top 24 seed remaining. She is also the only player who had even previously reached the fourth round of a grand slam.
At the beginning of a fresh, new season, a clear hierarchy had been established at the top of women’s tennis as the top players, led by Iga Świątek and Aryna Sabalenka, performed consistently. However, as quickly as that order was established, it fell apart.
The top half of the first grand slam tournament of the year has been a throwback to an old favorite on the WTA tour: delicious, entertaining chaos.
“It’s the first grand slam of the year,” said Noskova, responsible for the tournament’s most considerable upset against top seed Swiatek. “It’s very tough for everyone, especially the seeded players, to stand their ground and play what they should. But, in such a tournament, anything can happen.”
In the quarter-finals, Noskova and Yastremska will be living proof of the endless possibilities in any given draw as they compete for a place in the Australian Open quarter-finals.