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Svitolina, Sabalenka target politically-charged Wimbledon final

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus attempt to reach the Wimbledon final on Thursday, guaranteeing a championship showdown packed with political symbolism and potentially awkward optics.

Svitolina, the feelgood story of the tournament, having only returned to the sport from maternity leave three months ago, admits there are bigger, global issues in play at the All England Club.

The 28-year-old has consistently highlighted the suffering at home in the ongoing war, admitting that the tidal wave of support she receives “melts my heart”.

On Thursday, she faces fellow unseeded player Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Victory would put her into Saturday’s final where she will face world number two and Australian Open champion Sabalenka should the powerful Belarusian defeat Ons Jabeur in her semi-final.

Svitolina and her fellow Ukrainian players have opted not to shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players in protest at the war. Belarus is a key ally of Moscow.

The shaking of hands will also be an issue for the All England Club should Sabalenka go on to win the title as the trophy is due to be presented by the Princess of Wales.

“Can Ukraine star Elina Svitolina save Princess Kate from the awkward ordeal of handing the Wimbledon trophy to a Belarusian?” pondered leading tabloid, the Daily Mail.

Svitolina, ranked at 76, is destined for a return to the top 30 next week and has knocked out four Grand Slam champions to make the semi-finals—Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin, Victoria Azarenka and world number one Iga Swiatek.

After her fourth-round clash with Azarenka she chose again not to shake the Belarusian’s hand.

‘War made me stronger’

“I think the war made me stronger. I don’t take difficult situations like a disaster. There are worse things in life,” said Svitolina.

“Having a child, and the war, made me a different person. I look at the things a bit differently.”

The 42nd-ranked Vondrousova, back in the semi-finals of a major for the first time since finishing runner-up at the 2019 French Open, has seen off four seeded players to get to this stage.

In her quarter-final win over fourth-ranked Jessica Pegula, the 24-year-old came from 4-1 down in the final set.

Sabalenka is into her fourth successive Grand Slam semi-final and second at the All England Club after 2021.

Along with all Belarusian and Russian players, she was banned from the tournament last year.

The 25-year-old said, however, that the banishment allowed her to reset her career.

“Although I was very sad to miss the tournament, I was like, ‘OK, this is probably something I really needed’,” said Sabalenka, who has a tournament-leading 35 aces at Wimbledon this year and shares the fastest serve of 120mph (193 km/h). 

Since the 2022 All England Club ban, Sabalenka has made the semi-finals of the US Open, won the Australian Open in January and then reached another Grand Slam semi-final at the French Open in June.

Her victory at the Australian Open was one of three titles she has claimed in 2023. She has 40 match wins for the season. 

If she makes the final, she will dethrone Swiatek as world number one.

Jabeur, 28, is in the semi-finals for a second successive year.

On Wednesday, she defeated Elena Rybakina to avenge her loss to the Kazakh in last year’s final, which she admits is still “too painful” to watch.

Tunisian trailblazer Jabeur has battled to make the last four—coming from a set down to beat former US Open winner Bianca Andreescu in the third round and over-turning another deficit to see off Rybakina.

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