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‘My first question was, “How can I help?”’ Ukrainian tennis star Elina Svitolina on meeting president Zelensky amid conflict

Elina Svitolina acknowledges the crowd during the Stars of the Open Exhibition Match to Benefit Ukraine Relief prior to the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 23, 2023 in New York City.Sarah Stier/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

Ever since Russia’s invasion of her native Ukraine almost two years ago, the sport of tennis has assumed a different complexion for Elina Svitolina.

These days, she feels an immense sense of pride when she sees her country’s blue and yellow flag alongside her name and draws huge motivation from the soldiers fighting on the front line when she’s locked in a close match.

“Each time I step on the court, I’m introduced as a Ukrainian tennis player and I feel like I’m playing for my whole country,” says Svitolina.

The world No. 25, a three-time grand slam semifinalist, has spoken passionately about the plight of Ukrainians over the course of the war, even refusing to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian opponents.

That decision intensified the geopolitics of her matches against, for example, Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka at the French Open and Victoria Azarenka at Wimbledon, though Svitolina remains unwavering and says that her stance will remain the same at future tournaments.

“It’s been a big change since the invasion,” she tells  Sport’s Patrick Snell.

Svitolina (right) faces Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka at Wimbledon this year.Toby Melville/Reuters

Aside from not being allowed to compete at Wimbledon in 2021, players from Russia and Belarus have continued to play on the WTA and ATP tennis tours as neutral athletes without their flag or country on display.

Next year’s Olympics in Paris – overseen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather than tennis’ governing bodies – looks set to follow a similar approach, announcing last week that individual athletes from Russia and Belarus can compete as neutrals, so long as they meet certain eligibility requirements.

But Svitolina believes that the IOC should have taken a stronger stance.

“My position still stays the same, that I don’t think that they should continue playing for their country,” she says, echoing her previous calls to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Games.

“But right now, my focus is on helping people. We have to take the situation as it is right now and focus on what we can control: focus on some fundraisers, on some events that we can raise funds for, for kids and for Ukraine.”

Supporting Ukraine has commanded a lot of Svitolina’s time since the outbreak of war in her country. She is an ambassador for UNITED24, Ukraine’s official fundraising platform launched by president Volodymyr Zelensky, and is focused on a program which seeks to rebuild infrastructure damaged during the conflict.

Already, she has seen how an apartment block in the city of Irpin – almost completely destroyed during Russia’s invasion – has been restored through the support of the program and families have started to return.

“This is really unbelievable for me,” says Svitolina. “It’s such a great feeling.”

Svitolina celebrates against Iga Świątek at Wimbledon earlier this year.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Earlier in December, she met with Zelensky and has been impressed by his leadership qualities.

“He always jokes, he always has a very warm conversation with you,” the 29-year-old Svitolina adds.

“But also, he explains really clearly what the goals are, what we have to focus on, where the money goes. He’s very professional and we couldn’t ask for a better leader for Ukraine because he’s very open.”

Svitolina hails from Odesa, a port city in the south of Ukraine, and considers Kharkhiv, an eastern city heavily targeted by the Russian military, her second home having started her professional career there.

With her husband, fellow tennis player Gaël Monfils, and her young daughter, Skaï, she is now based outside of Ukraine, but returns to her home country whenever she can, the plight of her compatriots never far from her mind.

“I have a lot of friends who took [up] weapons and went to the frontline who are serving the country,” says Svitolina. “I’m really proud of everything that they are doing for Ukraine.

“My family is safe; I have half of my family out of Ukraine right now, half of the family still back there. I go to see them when I have the opportunity.

“I’m just very surprised and proud of the spirit that all Ukrainians have been showing in these difficult times. On a daily basis, they are facing missiles, they are facing a lot of scary moments … and they are continuing to work there, continuing to help each other.”

Svitolina is yet to win a grand slam title but hopes that might change next year.Steven Paston/PA/AP

Svitolina returned to competitive tennis earlier this year after the birth of her daughter in October 2022.

Once ranked as highly as No. 3 in the world, she has enjoyed some excellent results since becoming a mom, winning her 17th WTA title in Strasbourg in May before reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open and the semifinals at Wimbledon.

Her memorable – and unexpected – run at SW19 meant that Svitolina had to give up tickets to attend a Harry Styles concert in Vienna, but it was a sign that a first grand slam title of her career could be on the horizon.

Next year, she hopes for “peace in Ukraine” first of all – “some good news from my homeland” – and is learning to balance her tennis ambitions with everything else happening in her life.

“Of course, I want to win a grand slam,” says Svitolina, “but now I feel like the priorities have changed a lot after giving birth to Skaï and having other goals as well with UNITED24, with my foundation. I feel like priorities have shifted a little bit.

“I want to play, I want to win; I want to win every single match [when] I step on the court. But right now, I also try to enjoy it, I try to enjoy all this journey that I have and just not put too much pressure on myself.”

And that Harry Styles concert? “He told me that next time he will be going on tour, I have two tickets,” adds Svitolina, “so all good.”

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