Svitolina: 'When I face a Russian I fight like a soldier in Ukraine'

As she returns to her war-torn homeland for the first time in nine months, Elina Svitolina discusses her responsibility to hit back on the court: ‘When I face a Russian I fight like a soldier in Ukraine’

  • Elina Svitolina has returned to Ukraine for the first time since February
  •  She will see family, attend a children’s tournament and give coaching clinics
  • The world No 25 had emotional runs at Wimbledon and French Open this year 

This weekend Elina Svitolina has made the difficult journey to Kyiv, via train from Poland, and switched on the app which warns Ukrainians of incoming missile and drone attacks.

Her visit involves travelling to Odesa to see her 85-year-old grandmother and other family members, and attending the finals of a tournament supported by her childrens’ foundation, while also giving coaching clinics.

It is a far cry from high summer a few months ago, when she made an emotional run to Wimbledon’s semi-finals, freighted with a wider symbolism for her country.

This is her first trip home since February and in the intervening time she compiled one of the more remarkable competitive seasons of any athlete this year, whatever the sport.

From having no ranking after giving birth to her first child little more than a year ago, she has risen to world No 25, a run that also included a French Open quarter-final appearance.

Elina Svitolina has risen to world No 25 after emotional runs at Wimbledon and French Open

However, as she sadly notes, she is not expecting much to have changed in Ukraine, where the struggle persists.

‘I have a lot planned for this visit and will be seeing my grandmother and other family members, which I have been looking forward to,’ says Svitolina, perching on a plush sofa in the players’ lounge at last week’s Paris Masters, where she was watching her husband — French star Gael Monfils — in action.

‘My grandmother seems to be doing fine but Odesa is quite a dangerous place right now because they are attacking the port, there are alarms or bombs there pretty much every night. I suppose people are getting more used to living in these conditions now after so long, so she has got more used to it.

‘I have wanted to go, I know there is a risk but we have some good protection systems and I will follow all the procedures, like having the app, and go to the bomb shelters if I have to.

‘I feel I need to go to my home country, I miss my family and the culture.’ Between coming back in April and succumbing to an ankle injury after the US Open, Svitolina — who lives much of the time in Monaco with her husband and son — played 33 matches.

Nine of them were against players from Russia or Belarus, of which she won seven before heading straight to her chair without the customary handshake at the net. It is a practice which has been followed by all Ukrainian players against that opposition.

None were more highly charged than her fourth round at Wimbledon against Victoria Azarenka, which turned out to be among the matches of the year, a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory played out in a partisan and pulsating atmosphere rarely ever seen at the stately All England Club.

Svitolina snubs Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka after her quarter-final defeat at French Open

‘Wimbledon, support-wise, was unbelievable and this really pushed me to play my best tennis,’ she says. ‘A lot of Ukrainians feel like the UK is a second home so it is a special bond and actually that match was one of the highlights of my career. I was so happy afterwards.’

A defining characteristic of 2023 has been the continuing tension in the women’s locker room between players from one nation and those from the two allies who have been destroying it, and nobody found themselves more caught up in it than Ukraine’s top performer.

‘It’s not any easier, there are still a lot of things happening on and off the court. It takes a lot of energy being around the locker room and playing against them, because I feel they are representing their country and I am representing mine.

‘It feels a bit like a war, of course it isn’t war but still there are different types of battles within this war, so every time I step on the court against them it is a big motivation and also I know how many people are back in Ukraine watching and I feel this responsibility as well.

‘It takes a lot of energy out of me, so you have to think that pressure is a privilege. I go out there and fight like a soldier in Ukraine does.

‘It has been an energy-draining year, it is still difficult mentally but I found motivation on a daily basis to continue working on my professional path, because I know I can use it as a platform for more important things and raising awareness about Ukraine and raising money for the children.’

She admits to being anxious that the terrible events in Gaza have taken some of the focus away from her own country.

‘It has been nearly two years for us, I can see that around the world awareness has gone down right now which is a concern.

Her Wimbeldon victory over Victoria Azarenka was played out in a highly-charged atmosphere

‘Of course I know there is so much bad stuff going on in the world. I am just one individual doing as much I can in this terrible situation.’

She plans to resume full training upon her return from Ukraine, ready for next year on the WTA Tour, which has been further troubled this week by complaints over the surface at the season-end WTA Finals in Mexico.

‘I saw the court was not ready, I don’t know why the WTA wanted to host it in Cancun,’ she admits. ‘It’s a shame for the best eight players in the world to be playing in these conditions, it’s terrible for our sport to be honest.’

Yet as she knows too well, these are very much first world problems compared to infinitely more significant troubles occurring elsewhere.

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