Elina Svitolina: Ukraine’s unbreakable spirit is a great motivation for me

Now, almost two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Elina Svitolina’s days have a familiar rhythm.

Missile attacks from Russia usually happen overnight, so in the morning, right after you open your eyes, you reach for your phone to see where the bombs have landed. There is a call to her grandmother in Odessa. No matter how many times Svitolina has asked her, her grandmother has refused to leave her house and her cat.

There is time with his 15-month-old daughter Skai. There are many hours of training. There are phone calls related to his own business, and many more related to fundraising and relief efforts for Ukraine, through his work with United24, Ukraine’s leading war relief fundraising organization, to the one that the president of his country called to request his help. Sometimes these last into the night and do not end until she has put Skai to bed and has had dinner with her husband, the French tennis player Gael Monfils.

It’s a lot and yet Svitolina, women’s tennis comeback player of the year in 2023, insists she is lucky. Her parents and in-laws help her with Skai, and many others help her with her relief efforts and other activities. And then there are all the soldiers, people she grew up with, who do the really hard work.

“I have a lot of friends, male friends, and they are all on the front line,” says Svitolina, 29, during a video interview from Monaco, where she was preparing for the 2024 season.

There are tennis players who won more matches and earned more money in 2023 than Svitolina, and players who achieved more accolades. But it’s hard to imagine a player having a more impactful and impactful year, a stunning journey from the minor leagues to Center Court at Wimbledon during which both tennis fans and those who paid little attention to the sport showered her with unique adulation. and unbridled.

Svitolina was very popular at Wimbledon (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Were the roars of Carlos Alcaraz, the men’s Wimbledon champion, as loud as Svitolina’s during her run to the semi-finals at the All England Club, or to the quarter-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros weeks earlier? Definitely not.

Here was a different Svitolina, perhaps even better than the Svitolina who rose to world No. 3 in 2017 and won the WTA Tour final the following year. That Svitolina didn’t have the grit, nor the drive, nor the purpose, because during those few days last July, when Svitolina was the biggest story in the sport, or perhaps in any sport, there was a new security for those forehands and backhands that she launched with a laser in the most difficult moments against Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Iga Swiatek, the world number one. There was a kind of serenity about her as she floated from one match and one moment to the next.

“All this motivation around me, with different types of projects with my foundation, with United24, with all the people behind me, I received enormous support from Ukrainians, but also from all over the world, and it really motivated me to go for more, to really try hard,” he says. “I found myself in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, then in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, playing great tennis and super motivated and with a fresh mind and energy.”

Nobody saw this coming. Here was a player returning from giving birth, with much of her attention focused on motherhood and the trauma her family and her country were enduring. No one in the sport imagined Svitolina would rise through the ranks so quickly, if she ever did.

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Well, actually that’s not entirely true.

Last January, three months after Skai was born, Svitolina contacted Raemon Sluiter, a renowned Dutch tennis coach, to see if he would consider hiring her. Where others might have seen the challenges of a postpartum return, Sluiter saw an opportunity. There was no doubt about Svitolina’s raw talent. No one rises to No. 3 in the world and wins the season-ending championship by accident. But there was another dynamic at play that made working with Svitolina so appealing to Sluiter.

Because the tennis offseason is so short, players rarely have time to really train and practice to consider making changes to the way they play.

“If you really want to change something, you have to shorten the season,” Sluiter said during a recent interview.

At the time of the initial call-up, Svitolina was not scheduled to compete again for three months. Sluiter saw this as a golden opportunity to evolve. He told her not to worry about her busy life off the court. All he needed, he said, was to dedicate himself and concentrate on tennis while training.

“It would take me 30 minutes of quality training instead of two hours just going through the motions,” Sluiter said. “It’s about being intentional and very present.”

If Svitolina was tired or overwhelmed, he told her to take the day off. Given everything else going on in Svitolina’s life, Sluiter knew she was a player and a person like no other.

Let’s fast forward a few more months. It’s October and Svitolina’s tennis career in 2023 has come to an end. Pain from a stress fracture in her ankle, which began during the French Open, intensified during Wimbledon and became debilitating during the North American hard-court swing, forced her to end her season after the US Open .

Svitolina celebrates the winning match point against Darya Kasatkina at Roland Garros (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

It was then that Svitolina told Monfils that she wanted to visit Ukraine. Understandably protective, her husband was scared and cautious. “Although it is my homeland, it is still difficult for him to realize that I want to return, I want to go to the country where the war is,” he says.

Monfils finally understood, and in November, Svitolina set out on the arduous journey that involved 10-hour train rides to Ukraine over 10 days, first to see her grandmother in Odessa, then to Kiev and Dnipro, where she met with government officials and caught up with old friends, then to Kharkiv, which is just 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) from the Russian border.

Svitolina moved there when she was 12 years old to train and pursue her career as a professional tennis player. She went to see her old coaches and her club where she played her first tournaments and to be with the children who now train there and continue with her lives in the midst of the war.

“For me it is a great motivation to see that life goes on in Ukraine; They have this unbreakable spirit that nothing can really bother them, nothing can break their spirit,” she said.

“This is really a big motivation for me when I play a difficult match. When I face difficult times in my life, I always remember people who have to deal with war, who have to deal with losing their homes and, you know, just trying to really survive, live a normal life. life. And of course, the soldiers, the men and women who defend our country, who took weapons into their hands.”

After returning home and while her ankle healed, Svitolina returned to work. Once again, Sluiter saw the injury as something of an opportunity, giving Svitolina an extended offseason to refine and develop her game without the pressure of returning to competition.

Sluiter didn’t prescribe anything radical, but simply did what he started doing last year to an even greater degree.

“He can approach games with a more aggressive mentality and try to control them more and play them more on his terms than on the opponent’s,” he said.

Monfils and Svitolina are married (Pascal Le Segretain/SC Pool – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

By mid-December, Svitolina could play “90 percent pain-free,” although she remained concerned about how her ankle would feel on the hard courts at the ASB Classic in Auckland, her main preparation before the Australian Open, and how sharp it would be. could be. Upon returning from childbirth, she had great difficulty gaining for the first six weeks. She found her form at the end of May in Strasbourg, the week before the French Open.

So far, so good.

With Skai in tow on her first major tennis journey, Svitolina won her first four matches in Auckland, two against former Grand Slam champions Carolina Wozniacki and Emma Raducanu, before losing a close final to Grand Slam winner Coco Gauff. more recent. event, which she won 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3.

“I’m playing more freely,” Svitolina said last month. “Before I was a tennis player from Ukraine. But right now it’s very different. Different motivations, different objectives. And for me it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity every day, give 100 percent in every practice, every game and do everything in my power.”

(Top photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)