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Ukraine’s Unbreakable Spirit Motivates Tennis Star Elina Svitolina

SportUkraine's Unbreakable Spirit Motivates Tennis Star Elina Svitolina

By now, nearly two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my days have taken on a familiar rhythm. The news of missile attacks from Russia generally comes overnight, and as soon as I wake up, I grab my phone to see where the bombs have fallen. I always make sure to call my grandmother in Odessa, who refuses to leave her home and her beloved cat, despite my persistent pleas.

My time is also filled with moments with my 15-month-old daughter, Skai, and hours of rigorous training. Alongside managing my own business, I am deeply involved in fundraising and relief efforts for Ukraine through my work with United24, Ukraine’s primary war relief fundraising organization, which even received a request for assistance from the country’s president. The demands of the day often extend into the night, and I don’t seem to finish until after putting Skai to bed and having dinner with my husband, the talented French tennis player, Gael Monfils.

It’s a lot, but I consider myself fortunate. My parents and in-laws pitch in to help with Skai, and numerous individuals support me in my relief efforts and other pursuits. And then there are the soldiers, many of whom I grew up with, who are enduring the truly grueling work.

“I have a lot of friends, male friends, and they’re all at the front line,” I share during a heartfelt conversation from Monaco, where I was preparing for the 2024 season.

Part of my life is a glowing tale of triumph – being named the comeback player of the year in women’s tennis in 2023, infusing a sense of motivation into my game that propelled me to new heights. Yet, it’s hard to imagine a player having a more shocking and impactful year, a stunning ride from the minor leagues back to Centre Court at Wimbledon. During this period, the tennis world and even those who paid little attention to the sport, showered me with unique and unbridled adulation.

Were the cheers for me during my run to the semi-finals at the All England Club and the quarter-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros weeks earlier as loud as those for the men’s Wimbledon champion, Carlos Alcaraz? Definitely not.

This version of me appeared different, maybe even better than the version who previously rose to No 3 in the world in 2017 and triumphed in the WTA Tour finals the following year. The Svitolina of that era didn’t possess the same level of tenacity, drive, or purpose as the one who seized the spotlight. Here, there was a newfound conviction in the way I delivered forehands and backhands when facing the Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Iga Swiatek, the world No 1. I embodied a serene presence as I navigated from one match and moment to the next.

“This whole motivation around me, with different kinds of projects with my foundation, with United24, with all the people behind me, I got enormous support from Ukrainians, but also around the world, and it really motivated me to go for more, to really push myself,” I express. “I found myself in the quarter-final of Roland Garros, then in the semi-final of Wimbledon, playing great tennis and being super motivated and with a fresh mind and fresh energy.”

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No one saw this coming – a player returning from giving birth, with undivided attention on motherhood and the turmoil her family and country were facing. No one in the sport envisioned a swift resurgence in my rankings, if at all.

However, that’s not entirely accurate. Last January, three months after Skai was born, I reached out to Raemon Sluiter, a well-regarded Dutch tennis coach, to explore the prospect of working together. While many saw the challenges of a postpartum comeback, Sluiter saw an opportunity. There was no doubt about my raw talent, having ascended to No 3 in the world and clinched the season-ending championship. Beyond this, there was another dimension that made collaborating with me enticing for Sluiter.

Given the brief tennis off-season, players seldom have the luxury of dedicated time for training and making substantial changes to their game.

“If you really want to change something, you have to cut your season short,” Sluiter articulated during a recent interview.

At the time of our initial discussion, I hadn’t planned to return to competition for another three months. Sluiter perceived this as a golden opportunity for me to evolve. He advised me to prioritize my dedication and focus solely on tennis during training, dismissing concerns about my busy life off the court.

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

If I felt fatigued or overwhelmed, he encouraged me to take the day off. Acknowledging the myriad of responsibilities in my life, Sluiter understood the unique blend of player and person that I embodied.

Fast forward a few months to October when my 2023 tennis journey reached its conclusion. The agony stemming from a stress fracture in my ankle, which first surfaced at the French Open, intensified during Wimbledon and turned debilitating during the North American hardcourt swing, forcing me to terminate my season after the U.S. Open.

This is when I expressed my desire to visit Ukraine to Monfils. Understandably protective, my husband was initially fearful and apprehensive.

“Even though it’s my homeland, it’s still tough for him to realize that I want to go back, I want to go to the country where the war is,” I recall.

Eventually, Monfils comprehended, and in November, I undertook the arduous journey involving 10-hour train rides to Ukraine for 10 days. I visited my grandmother in Odessa, met with government officials in Kyiv and Dnipro, reconnected with old friends, and ventured to Kharkiv, just 20km from the Russian border.

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I relocated to Kharkiv when I was 12 to pursue my career as a professional tennis player. I reunited with my former coaches, visited the club where I played my initial tournaments, and spent time with the aspiring young talents who continue training amid the backdrop of war.

“It’s such a big motivation for me to see that in Ukraine life continues; they are having this unbreakable spirit that nothing can really bother them, nothing can break their spirit,” I emphasized.

“This is really a huge motivation for me when I am playing a tough match. When I’m facing tough moments in my life, I always remind myself of the people that have to deal with war,## Overcoming Adversity: My Journey Back to the Court

Hey there, it’s been a tough road back to the court for me, and I’m excited to share my journey with you. When I suffered a serious ankle injury, the more than just concerned about how my ankle would feel on the hard courts. As I gradually healed, I took the opportunity to refine and develop my game without the pressure to return to competition. It was a challenging time, but I didn’t let it discourage me.

By mid-December, I was able to play “90 per cent pain-free”, and I remained concerned about how my ankle would feel on the hard courts of Auckland’s ASB Classic, my main tuneup before the Australian Open. Despite my concerns, I was able to play without much pain, and I gradually found my form.

I was determined to make the most of my comeback, and with my newfound freedom on the court, I won my first four matches in Auckland. I played against former Grand Slam champions, such as Caroline Wozniacki and Emma Raducanu, before putting up a tough fight in the final. It was a close match, but I didn’t let it discourage me. I knew that the journey back to the top wouldn’t be easy, but I was motivated and ready to give my all.

As I reflected on my journey, I realized that the injury had given me a different perspective. I approached matches with a more aggressive mindset and strived to control them on my terms. I felt like a different tennis player, driven by different motivations and goals. Every single day, I made sure to give my best in practice and during matches, leaving nothing on the table.

It’s been a challenging road, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’ve embraced the opportunity to refine my game, and I’m looking forward to what the future holds. Thank you for being a part of my journey. Stay tuned for more updates as I continue to push forward and strive for greatness on the court.

With gratitude,
[Your Name]

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