Elina Svitolina has been conspicuously absent from tennis’ grandest stages as of late. War, pregnancy and some lingering back pain as well have kept the Ukrainian star on the sidelines for more than a year.
These days, however, the winner of five top WTA tournaments and the reigning Olympic bronze medalist is coming back with a vengeance, literally, and not just for silver trophies. Svitolina sees an entrenched injustice in international sports ever since Russia’s invasion of her country. She is angry that Ukrainian athletes are saddled with extremely challenging conditions, often fighting on the battlefield itself, while the rest of the world’s athletes can carry on training as usual.
“This is clearly not fair,” Svitolina told Kyiv Post when describing the vastly different environments in which the Ukranians and their rivals to the east compete. “Russian athletes have had the opportunity to continue playing as if nothing ever happened. And our athletes are dying for our country.”
As the only Ukrainian ever to win an Olympic medal in tennis, Svitolina has become not only a torch-bearer for the sport, but also a political leader of sorts, who sees the potential in her position to garner international aid for the devastation at home.
Immediately following Russia’s invasion last year, Svitolina, then 27 years old, announced her refusal to play against any woman representing either Russia or Belarus. She laments that the war has had a crippling effect on the development of Ukrainian tennis.
“I think the situation in Ukrainian sports as a whole is very sad. All sports have been set back ten years,” she said. “The restoration [of tennis] will be gradual.”
From her training grounds in Monaco, Svitolina emphasized that there many Ukrainian athletes like her, who currently reside abroad and are using their influence to attract foreign assistance, both in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and supporting the Ukrainian military. She described what she is doing personally for those efforts as an ambassador for the United24 platform, and how she assists young Ukrainian athletes through the Elina Svitolina Foundation.
But first, she reflected on what it has been like returning to the highest echelons of competition, five months after giving birth to her first child, and a year after the Russian tanks first rolled in.
Was it difficult mentally and physically to return to international sports?
In fact, I was lucky. I expected the worst, especially given the fact that during my pregnancy I did not exercise at all in order to give my body a rest.
One of the reasons I didn't have any motivation to train was the war itself. For the first two months of the full-scale invasion, I was still performing. However, it was difficult for me to mentally focus as my family was still in Ukraine. So later, when I was physically resting, I spent that time coping with the emotions caused by the war.
And although I actually had to build up my muscles from scratch, two weeks after giving birth, I got back to my usual fitness level. And after another three months, I began to gradually return to training. I am currently in Monaco with my coaching staff, and we are preparing for competition in April.
Still, tennis presents a very busy schedule, so it is important for me to monitor my physical condition so as not to overload myself. During my time outside of competition, I organized fundraising events in order to help out. This took a toll on my health as well, but I want to keep helping, so I have to prioritize my health so that I can do more in the future.
How are Russians now perceived abroad, in particular in Monaco?
In fact, they are not treated well. And not only because most people support Ukraine and want to help, but also due to the fact that, thanks to the war that Russia started in Europe, the prices for everything, including gasoline, have gone up. This is causing discomfort to foreigners and they understand that it is because of the Russians, so they are angry with them.
What is the general position on Russian athletes competing in international sports? In your opinion, will Ukraine be able to achieve the blocking of Russian and Belarusian athletes, at least in tennis?
It's hard for me to say how they are treated, because I didn't take part in competitions [over the past year]. But I don't think anything has changed there, unfortunately. The WTA and ATP tennis associations still allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to continue playing.
But I hope that we will be able to change this situation. There are already many organizations that are trying to provide all the arguments in our favor.
This is clearly not fair. Russian athletes have the opportunity to continue playing as if nothing ever happened. And our athletes are dying for our country.
How do organizations that decide to grant permission to compete to Russian and Belarusian athletes respond to Ukrainian requests?
Their most common argument is that sports belong outside of politics. They say that athletes have nothing to do with politics.
I already have had so many meetings with various officials of the Olympic Committee and tennis organizations that, to be honest, I no longer have the moral strength to fight them. After all, they just don't want to open their eyes and face the truth.
What is the current state of Ukrainian tennis and what, in your opinion, is its future?
It's hard to say, but I think the situation with Ukrainian sports on the whole is very sad. Our sports have been set back ten years. After all, our athletes can not train normally, and many of them are sent to the front and have died.
As such, there has been no development of tennis in Ukraine. Everyone looks for their own ways to break into world tennis. Yes, there have been patrons who have helped certain tennis players, but there has been no assistance from the Tennis Federation in Ukraine.
Personally, I was lucky to have met Yuri Sapronov [businessman], who helped me become a professional tennis player. So, in 2019, I created a charity foundation that provides these types of opportunities for young athletes. In general, I have always had a dream — to create a sports center for children where they can live, train, study, and dedicate themselves to sports. But now we are also focused on helping children to be evacuated from Ukraine.
The restoration of the sport will be gradual. At this stage, it is difficult enough to do everything to win the war. And then we will think about how to restore this industry.
How many young athletes are in the care of your foundation?
More than 200 children and their families have passed through our program. We provided them with transportation, food, accommodation, and training expenses for several months. We also pay for their trips to some tournaments. We have different programs that change every three months.
A month ago, we launched a psychological assistance program. Currently, the psychologist works with 20 children, but we will expand. In addition, we plan to organize mini-tournaments where children will be able to get grants for their further promotion.
How do you maintain the fund?
We collaborate with my sponsors and partners, such as Nike and Wilson. Many partners have made donations.
We also do charity events where we raise funds in a different way. After all, people around the world are somewhat tired of the war. Therefore, we offer something pleasant to receive something useful. For example, we do auctions, where people buy some type of experience and all the money goes to charity.
How did you become a United24 ambassador?
In the summer of 2022, [former AC Milan soccer star] Andriy Shevchenko called me and told me that he had met with [President] Volodymyr Zelensky. They discussed that Andriy would become the first ambassador, and they wanted me to become the second ambassador.
In a good way, I was shocked. After all, I didn't expect that I could help my country so much at a global level. Then I talked to the President and the United24 team.
Everything is very transparent on the platform and it is clear where and how much money is collected and sent. You can make a donation in just two seconds from anywhere. Therefore, I am very happy, and it is a great honor for me to present such a platform that helps our country.
What does the organization process look like?
We have Zoom calls where we are given tasks for which we need to raise funds over the following month. For example, in December we collected money for generators for hospitals.
In February, we were tasked with raising funds for the restoration of homes in Irpin. United24 has taken on the renovation of 18 houses, one of which I have taken on myself. Thus, each athlete has his or her own building [for which to raise money]. That's why we create events and so on: to attract more people and funds.
What difficulties are there now?
There are no problems in the organization at all, everything is easy and fast. The most difficult thing is to find the necessary funds. For example, there is still a little more to collect for the restoration of a house in Irpin. More than 108,000 euros have already been collected out of the required 127,000. I also added funds from my budget, but I think that I will finally be able to close the collection from the charity event in April.
We will try to close this out as soon as possible, so that people can quickly return to their homes, and this is as many as 390 Ukrainians.
I was at this house three weeks ago and, of course, it's a sad sight.
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