Elina Svitolina: Mentally I feel safer in Ukraine than anywhere else

Elina Svitolina: Mentally I feel safer in Ukraine than anywhere else

Elina Svitolina makes a startling admission about her trips home to Ukraine.

The former world number three is discussing visiting her troubled homeland and how it fits in with life as a new mother.

Her husband, fellow tennis player Gael Monfils, is, she reveals, “really worried” about her safety.

But Svitolina told the PA news agency: “Of course it’s unsafe because the country’s in a state of war. I have to plan it really well with the safety measures and be careful always. But mentally I feel safer in Ukraine than anywhere else in the world.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coincided with the early stages of Svitolina’s pregnancy – baby Skai was born in October – and she was absent from the match court for a year.

As one of Ukraine’s most high-profile sportspeople, the hiatus gave her an opportunity to dive fully into doing what she could to support her compatriots.

Alongside family snaps and pictures of her on-court exploits, Svitolina’s Instagram feed features images of her highlighting the heartbreaking damage caused to Ukraine and in meetings with president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Along with former Ukraine footballer Andriy Shevchenko, the 28-year-old is an ambassador for United24, the country’s official fundraising platform, while her own foundation, set up to support young tennis players, has widened its remit to provide relief for Ukrainian refugees.

Former boxer Vitali Klitschko made the switch from sport to politics and has a prominent role in Ukraine as mayor of Kyiv, but Svitolina is content with using her sporting profile to help her country.

“I’ve been quite interested in politics, and especially this time when I was pregnant, I have lots of friends who have different positions in Ukrainian politics and many friends as well who know a lot about it,” she said.

“But I never really wanted to go that way. I just want to be aware what is happening in my country, to learn and to understand how we can help at different levels for the people.

“I’m really happy with the position I have right now, using my platform, using my voice in every possible way through sports. This is my way and I feel I’m in the right place, and I want to use it as much as possible to help people.”

Next week sees Svitolina return to Wimbledon, where her best performance was a run to the semi-finals in 2019.

Svitolina’s ranking was not high enough to earn her direct entry into the championships but the All England Club awarded her a wild card.

She will hope to make a similar impression to her emotional French Open return, where she followed up a WTA Tour title in Strasbourg by reaching the quarter-finals to propel her back into the top 100.

Elina Svitolina reacts emotionally after reaching the French Open quarter-finals
Elina Svitolina reacts emotionally after reaching the French Open quarter-finals (Christophe Ena/AP)

“For sure it was a great step forward for me,” said Svitolina, who only returned to the tour in April.

“I played really well in Strasbourg, Roland Garros was a great run for me, so I’m really happy I could find again this fighting spirit, playing well under pressure. Hopefully I can build on that. I’m really motivated to go back on the practice court and find again my good game and my good mindset.”

Svitolina will hope, also, that the Wimbledon crowd are more generous should she face a Russian or Belarusian player after she was booed in Paris for sticking to the Ukrainian position of not shaking hands with opponents from the two aggressor nations.

She knows she has work to do on grass, which is not such a natural surface for her, and her first match in Birmingham last week ended in a one-sided loss to Czech teenager Linda Fruhvirtova.

Svitolina now has to juggle training with life as a mother and managing the conflicting feelings of spending time away from Skai.

“It’s not easy, especially a performance like (against Fruhvirtova), it makes you feel not great,” she says.

“But me and Gael decided it’s going to be a better way for her as well to not travel so much because it’s very draining travelling, different zones. She will be coming to London if we both play there so it will be nice to spend some time together.

“I think the hardest thing is for sure being away from the baby. Also finding the mindset again, playing matches. Physically I feel I’m there and I’m hitting fine but the mindset of being in the match and being focused from the start until the end, this has been the most challenging to me.”

Always on her mind as well will be Ukraine and Svitolina is already thinking of when she might be able to return to her home city of Odesa.

“I’m looking to go back home in the near future,” she says. “I don’t know exactly when, maybe in a few months, maybe half a year. Obviously the tennis season is packed with tournaments but, as soon as I have the opportunity, I will definitely plan to go there.

“I want to see my grandmother, who is there, my dad was there as well for a couple of weeks. And just to see my friends, to go back to my home. I really miss my country and especially what is now happening, lots of damage to a lot of the cities that mean a lot to me.”