Elina Svitolina is back in Dubai, where her career took off last season.
A year ago, Elina Svitolina came to Dubai as a five-time title winner on the WTA tour, ranked No. 13 in the world.
Her quintet of trophies were all won at International-level tournaments – the lowest tier on the WTA circuit – and she was searching for that one big result that would officially announce her arrival to the big leagues.
A week later, she eased by Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to claim the Premier 5-level Dubai crown and make her top-10 debut.
There was no stopping her from that point onwards. Svitolina went on to win two more Premier 5s in Rome and Toronto, and qualified for the year-end WTA Finals for the first time. She ended 2017 ranked No. 6 in the world.
This week in Dubai, Svitolina has a target on her back not just as the defending champion but as the tournament’s top seed.
“This year going to be a couple times for me, coming to big tournaments as defending champion. I’m going to have to get used to it,” Svitolina told reporters at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai on Sunday.
“Different feeling definitely for me. But, yeah, for me it’s also very interesting to see how I’m going to handle it. Yeah, I’m ready for this challenge definitely.
“I don’t look at it as a pressure because I played well this year. I know what I have to do to be ready to, yeah, play well here. Yeah, just that I have to go on court and be 100 per cent physically, yeah, just be ready for everything really.”
The Ukrainian owns a solid 10-2 win-loss record in 2018 that includes a title run in Brisbane and a quarter-finals showing at the Australian Open.
The 23-year-old is currently ranked No. 3 and is No. 5 in the 2018 Porsche Race to Singapore standings.
Svitolina highlights her consistency as the area in which she has improved the most and while she is yet to make it past the quarter-finals at a major, she is confident and pleased with her progress so far.
With the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka taking time away from the game for various reasons, Svitolina is one of the younger players to rise through the ranks and solidify her place at the top.
“I think the game changed, but also everyone who is top-10 are quite solid and consistent with their game. That’s why it’s, like, now kind of equal. Everyone is, yeah, strong and ready to compete each week,” explains Svitolina.
Williams, who had her first child, Olympia, last September made her first competitive appearance in 13 months last week in Fed Cup, playing doubles for USA against Netherlands. The 23-time Grand Slam champion will return to the tour for the first time since January 2017 next month at Indian Wells.
The 36-year-old Williams will be unranked but will have a special ranking of No. 1 which she can use to enter as many as eight tournaments.
Does Svitolina see the American star coming back as strong as she was in the past?
“I think maybe not as strong, but different strong. She definitely can come back to level she was. But I’m sure that she will be very, very strong again. I’m not sure it’s going to be, like, the same,” said Svitolina, who is due to compete in a Tie Break Tens exhibition event in New York on March 5 alongside Williams and others.
“For sure, she’s a great champion. She has unbelievable experience, unbelievable game for the tennis. Very unique. It’s going to be very interesting to see her coming back. Hopefully, you know, I can play against her. I’m going to have a chance to play actually in New York.”
Svitolina has a bye in the opening round in Dubai and could face either a qualifier or Kiki Bertens in round two.
Main draw action begins on Monday with the final taking place on Saturday February 24.