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How Elina Svitolina Balances Grand Slam Goals With ‘mission’ How Elina Svitolina Balances Grand Slam Goals With ‘mission’

How Elina Svitolina balances grand slam goals with ‘mission’ for Ukraine

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Every day, Elina Svitolina wakes up and reaches for her phone, scanning messages from friends and family at home in Ukraine, reading the latest news and watching clips about her country’s fight to defend itself against Russia’s continued war. It is bleak but the 29-year-old wants to do it. It is now as much a part of her as being a professional tennis player, or a mother. And she is handling it. As her coach, Raemon Sluiter, said on Saturday: “I don’t want to use the F-word, but she’s … tough.”

“If it’s really horrible – some days are really bad – I know it straight away, as soon as I wake up.” Svitolina told the Observer at Melbourne Park. “This is part of my day. I cannot escape that and I don’t really want to escape because I want to know, I want to be in the loop with what is happening back at home. I have my grandmother, I have my uncle, his family’s there as well, so I want to know what’s going on. I don’t want to be in the dark because this is, I think, the worst feeling.”

As one of Ukraine’s leading sports stars, Svitolina has always played for more than herself. Her bronze medal from the Tokyo Olympics is one of her most cherished possessions. But from the moment Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she has taken it upon herself to maintain awareness, to raise money and to aid the humanitarian fight. It’s a pressure and a responsibility she embraces.

“I take it as my mission,” she said. “I have my foundation, I’m an ambassador for United24 [the official fundraising programme of Ukraine]. I want to help people. As a tennis player, I have different kinds of opportunities; with my foundation, my team that are working for United24, we’re trying to create different kinds of events that we can raise money for Ukrainian people.

“I try to use my platform to raise money and to help people as much as I can from my side, reminding people about the war, about the possible donations for kids; for example, through my foundation for the talented kids who play tennis. I try to use it in different directions, to use my platform for the health of my country.”

Svitolina acknowledges the fact that with current events in Gaza and in the Red Sea, people may start to forget what is happening in Ukraine. Where once it was the first item on the news, it’s been pushed down the agenda. Her efforts to keep Ukraine in the front of people’s minds have not gone unnoticed. Inundated with messages of support from home, she’s as inspired by what the people of Ukraine are doing as they are about her efforts.

“When I was back in Ukraine back in November, so many people came to me, they’re really thankful for all the work that I do,” she said. “This really motivates me. The trip to Ukraine for 10 days took a lot out of me but I’m happy to do that. I don’t want to take credit, I really want to give back because the people in Ukraine are doing so much for our freedom, for the identity of Ukrainians. This Ukrainian spirit that I have, it’s all coming from there. It’s a huge motivation for me. Every single day that I wake up, I feel like I have this power. And I have this responsibility as well. But I’m happy to have that.”

Being on top of everything must take its toll, emotionally and psychologically. Svitolina is conscious of it and takes time for herself, to protect her mental health. Her husband, the French star Gaël Monfils, and their young daughter, Skai, offer her chances to be “normal” while Sluiter adapts training plans if, as has happened a few times, Svitolina’s mind is not in the right place because of events overnight.

Her primary job, of course, is winning tennis matches and since she returned to the Tour last March, five months after becoming a mother, Svitolina’s results have been remarkable. She reached the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros and then, at Wimbledon, she beat Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, to reach the semi-finals. Missing out on a first grand slam final hurt, but the crowd reaction was incredible.

“It’s really, I think, the best feeling I ever had on the court,” she said. “And an amazing result as well. It’s unbelievable how much the English people did and are doing right now for all Ukrainians, for the refugees. They really opened their arms. I’m really thankful to everyone.”

Fully fit again after a foot injury she suffered at the US Open, Svitolina reached the final in Auckland last week. Here this fortnight, anything is possible. As Sluiter said: “After last year, nothing would come as a surprise.”

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