One fan in Centre Court held the Ukrainian flag. Another yelled, “We love you, Elina.” The Ukrainian ambassador was there, too, cheering along with fans from Britain, the United States, Uganda, Bulgaria and more, for Elina Svitolina, the uncrowned sentimental champion of Wimbledon 2023.
But in the end, the pressure of carrying the hopes of both her own nation and Wimbledon Nation wore her down. Despite the attempts of the crowd to bolster her spirit, Svitolina was unable to overcome Marketa Vondrousova, the 42nd-ranked player in the world, who beat her in straight sets on Thursday, leaving a palpable void in the tournament.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of tension,” Svitolina conceded after the match. “I try to balance it as much as I can. But, yeah, sometimes it gets maybe too much.”
Svitolina, who has been a flag-bearer both for Ukraine and for new mothers around the world, planned to depart Britain on Friday to reunite with her daughter and family. But revitalized by her triumph at Wimbledon, she will carry on through the summer and onward, drawing even more attention to her twin causes.
“What she is doing is beautiful in so many ways,” said Phuma Yeni, a social care worker from London. “Everyone is rooting for her because she is so courageous.”
During her semifinal loss, fans atop Henman Hill, the mound next to Court 1 where fans gather to watch matches on a giant video screen, fell almost silent. They cheered and clapped when Svitolina did well, but it became clear early on that she was in a desperate fight, and a sullen cloud of gloom descended over the grand tennis campus.
“It’s very sad,” said Valia Ivanova, a civil servant and tennis fan from London, by way of Bulgaria, who normally supports Novak Djokovic. “She has such a beautiful story, and everyone wanted her to win. Now, you can hear, it is just silent.”
Svitolina has become a beacon for many people in her country and beyond for her outspoken support of Ukraine’s efforts to fight against the Russian invasion. She has used her celebrity, organizing tennis events and other activities to raise money for relief efforts, and has made public declarations decrying the invasion. She also drew attention to the cause by refusing to shake hands — as is customary after each match — with players from Russia and Belarus. The latter country provided support for the invasion.
Svitolina said she had felt the support from the fans throughout her six matches here, and she thanked the tennis fans who had come to watch her in person and the millions more watching on television from her homeland and around the world. She specifically thanked the British people and government for their staunch support of Ukraine since the 2022 invasion, in providing both military assistance and sanctuary for refugees.
“I’m really thankful for the crowd to support me, be there for me, and all Ukrainian people as well,” Svitolina said. “They support us quite a lot in different kind of ways, for a lot of Ukrainians who arrived here when the war started. Really thankful for all the people to support us in different levels.”
Wimbledon, which barred Russian and Belarusian players from participating last year, relented this year and allowed them to play, but it does not recognize the countries they represent. Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador, watched Svitolina play from the Royal Box on Thursday, and she was not even aware of it until her postmatch news conference.
Since the beginning of the tournament, the All England Club has provided tickets, transportation and food to over 1,000 Ukrainian refugees. The club would most likely have done so even if Svitolina had not been rampaging to a semifinal, but her success shone more light on the circumstances.
“She is the story of the tournament,” said Sarah Sserwanga, a tennis fan from London who watched the match with her daughter, Zoe. “Everything she is doing has been so inspiring.”
Many fans have also been inspired by Svitolina’s ability to play so well as a new mother. In October, she gave birth to a girl, Skai, and she returned to the tennis tour in April. Her husband, the professional tennis player Gaël Monfils, has been at home with the baby, along with both of the couple’s mothers. Svitolina has worked mostly 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 were born. Then it was back to work. She tried to imagine the challenges Svitolina had faced in coming back so soon and leaving her baby behind during her extended run here.
“Your body can change, your emotions swirl, and you don’t know what is coming next sometimes,” Sserwanga said. “To have all that, plus playing for your country as she is, it is amazing. Simply amazing.”
For the next several weeks, on hardcourts across North America, leading up to the U.S. Open, Svitolina will try to build on her success and perhaps convert it into 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 in her eyes during her painful postmatch news conference, a smile broke through.
“That will be the best part,” she said.