A fan on Center Court held the Ukrainian flag. Another yelled: “We love you, Elina.” Ukraine’s ambassador was also there, cheering along with fans from Britain, the United States, Uganda, Bulgaria and more, for Elina Svitolina, the 2023 Wimbledon uncrowned sentimental champion.
But in the end, the pressure of carrying the hopes of both her own nation and Wimbledon Nation wore her down. Despite the crowd’s attempts to cheer her up, Svitolina was unable to overcome Marketa Vondrousova, the world number 42 player, who defeated her in straight sets on Thursday, leaving a palpable void in the tournament.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of stress,” Svitolina admitted after the match. “I try to balance it out as much as I can. But, yeah, sometimes it might be too much.”
Svitolina, who has been a standard-bearer for both Ukraine and new mothers around the world, planned to leave Britain on Friday to join her daughter and family. But reinvigorated by her Wimbledon triumph, she will continue through the summer and beyond, drawing even more attention to her twin causes.
“What he is doing is beautiful in so many ways,” said Phuma Yeni, a London social worker. “Everyone supports her because she is very brave.”
During their semifinal loss, the fans atop Henman Hill, the mound next to Court 1 where fans gather to watch games on a giant video screen, fell almost silent. They cheered and applauded when Svitolina got it right, but it was clear from the start that she was in for a desperate fight, and a cloud of sadness descended on the vast tennis campus.
“It’s very sad,” said Valia Ivanova, a London civil servant and tennis fan from Bulgaria who often supports Novak Djokovic. “She has such a beautiful story, and everyone wanted her to win. Now, you can listen, she’s just silent.”
Svitolina has become a beacon to many in her country and beyond for her open support of Ukraine’s efforts to fight the Russian invasion. She has used her celebrity, organizing tennis events and other activities to raise money for relief efforts, and has made public statements denouncing the invasion. She also drew attention to the cause by refusing to shake hands, as is customary after every match, with players from Russia and Belarus. The latter country supported the invasion.
Svitolina said she had felt the support of the fans during her six matches here, thanking the tennis fans who had come to see her in person and the millions more who watched on television from her homeland and around the world. Specifically, she thanked the British people and government for their steadfast support for Ukraine since the 2022 invasion, providing military assistance and shelter for refugees.
“I am really grateful for the support of the crowd, for being there for me and also for all the Ukrainian people,” Svitolina said. “They support us quite a lot in different ways, for many Ukrainians who came here when the war started. Really grateful for all the people who support us on different levels.”
Wimbledon, which banned Russian and Belarusian players last year, relented this year and allowed them to play, but does not recognize the countries they represent. Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador, watched Svitolina play from the royal box on Thursday and didn’t even notice it until the post-match press conference.
Since the start of the tournament, the All England Club has provided tickets, transport and food to more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees. Most likely, the club would have done so even if Svitolina hadn’t made it to a semi-final, but his success shed more light on the circumstances.
“She is the history of the tournament,” said Sarah Sserwanga, a tennis fan from London who watched the match with her daughter, Zoe. “Everything she’s doing has been very inspiring.”
Many fans have also been inspired by Svitolina’s ability to play as well as a new mother. In October she gave birth to a girl, Skai, and returned to the tennis tour in April. Her husband, professional tennis player Gaël Monfils, has been home with the baby, along with the couple’s two mothers. Svitolina has mostly worked alone here to charm and captivate the fans.
Sserwanga, an executive, has two children and was able to take six months off to care for them after each one was born. He then went back to work. He tried to imagine the challenges Svitolina had faced returning so soon and leaving her baby behind during her long career here.
“Your body can change, your emotions swirl, and sometimes you don’t know what’s coming next,” Sserwanga said. “Having all of that, plus playing for your country as she is, is incredible. Just amazing.”
Over the next few weeks, on North American hard courts, leading up to the US Open, Svitolina will try to build on her success and perhaps make it her first final at a Grand Slam event.
Before that, she was looking forward to the one thing she knew would cheer her up: seeing her daughter again. As tears welled up in her eyes during her painful post-game press conference, a smile broke through.
“That will be the best part,” he said.