Interview: Svitolina buoyed by a deeper mission

Star opens up about striving to be a good mom, a successful player, and a beacon of hope for Ukraine

Elina Svitolina / Roland-Garros 2023©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

 - Reem Abulleil

When Elina Svitolina found out she was pregnant early 2022, it was a joyous moment for the Monfils-Svitolina household.

The Ukrainian star spent just over a year away from the tennis tour, during which she and her husband Gael Monfils welcomed their daughter Skaï.

The first few months after learning she was pregnant gave Svitolina the chance to reflect on her career, not knowing what the future had in store for her on court.

“For sure I have high goals, and I always had high goals for myself, and I have ultimate goals, like I think every tennis player, to win a Grand Slam and become No.1 in the world. But I think it’s important to also realise the journey that I had over the years, being in the top 10, top five for some years, it also can be enough,” Svitolina told in an interview.

“Because for sure when you get pregnant, you hope that everything goes well, but also have to see realistically that maybe I will not be able to come back.

“So in that moment, it took me some months to realise, to maybe have a different perspective as well about my career, and that’s why I think it also helped me when I had the chance to come back. Actually, I think with zero expectations, I came back even quicker because I was not expecting to come back in Charleston.”

A journey of “acceptance”

Svitolina returned to the tour at the WTA 500 green clay event in Charleston in April 2023, less than six months after giving birth. Seven weeks later, she clinched her first WTA title as a mother, lifting the trophy in Strasbourg on the eve of Roland-Garros.

“I feel like it’s a constant process of accepting and moving forward with what you have. Accept what you have and just draw confidence from this,” said the 29-year-old, who rocketed back into the top-30 by mid-July, just three months into her return from maternity leave.

Svitolina’s mindset is all based on accepting her limitations, whenever they arise, while appreciating what she has achieved so far.

“For example, even I was thinking, when I was, let’s say, 50 in the world, I dreamed and worked towards being top 10, and I always thought, when I will be top 10, I won’t worry anymore about results, about the rankings and stuff,” she explained.

“And then when I reached top 10, I was like, when I’ll be top five I’m going to stop thinking and worrying. Because I think it’s mostly worry, you have points to defend, you have goals, tournaments are coming up, nerves are building up. So I got to top five and it never changed.

“So I think it’s important, doesn’t matter what your ranking is, it’s important to know what you’ve already done, how much work you’ve already done before that, to be happy with what you already achieved and what you did, which tournaments you won, the tough matches where you were able to hold the nerves.

“So for me it’s always a process, reminding myself that I already achieved quite a lot in my career and even if I have to stop tomorrow, that I can live peacefully with myself. This is always a constant process, to remind myself to not be too hard on myself.”

Elina Svitolina, Roland-Garros 2023, first round©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Unforgettable support in France

That approach didn’t stop Svitolina from posting some impressive results during this comeback. At Roland-Garros last year, her first Grand Slam appearance as a mother, she stormed to the quarter-finals before falling to No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

At her next major outing, she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, navigating a brutal draw that saw her defeat four Grand Slam winners, including reigning world No.1 Iga Swiatek, before losing to eventual champion Marketa Vondrousova.

“These kind of tournaments for me bring a lot of joy, just great memories. I feel like all the down moments that I had were erased by the good moments,” said Svitolina.

Elina Svitolina / Quarts de finale Wimbledon 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

In Paris, Svitolina was embraced by the crowd like she was a home favourite, her emotional run to the quarters resonating with everyone watching from the sidelines.

“It was really great from the first match,” she said, looking back at her time at Roland-Garros 12 months ago.

“I had great support, it was really good to share this moment because first Grand Slam back, winning Strasbourg before, also in France, I felt there was a big support for me and I really enjoyed my time.

“It really pushed me to come back always in the match, and always be there keeping the focus and trying my best. It was a great tournament for me. Even though of course I wish I could have gone even further. But I really enjoyed my time there.”

A balancing act

There may be many mothers on the tennis tour nowadays but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy balancing act to pull off. Svitolina says the key component of making her life as a professional player work is that she and Monfils put Skaï’s health and wellbeing above everything else.

They can take her with them when they have to travel for longer stays in Australia at the start of the season or later in the United States and leave her at home with both her grandmothers when they have shorter trips in Europe in order to give her more stability.

“It is tough for us for sure to be apart from her, but I think it’s important that she has her routines at home, she has two grandmothers taking care of her. As soon as we’re done, we easily can go back, it’s a short flight and we’re there,” she added.

“We also try to balance it and see how she feels and how we feel, so it’s a family decision.”

With a newfound perspective and approach to this second chapter of her career, Svitolina is back in the top 20, playing a more aggressive brand of tennis compared to how she competed in the past.

Does this fresh perspective mean she is able to enjoy the tour more?

“It’s a tough question because we’re travelling so much and being away from Skaï, it’s difficult. I try not to put too much emphasis on this, but it’s tough,” she confessed.

“So I would say it’s tougher now than it was before for me to travel. When you don’t have the results that you want, it’s difficult because you feel like you wish you could be at home with Skaï. But this is a choice that you have to make.”

Elina Svitolina, huitièmes de finale, Roland-Garros 2023©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

‘I have to deal with more injuries that I used to before’

Another challenge Svitolina is facing is dealing with more injuries than she’s been accustomed to.

She missed the end of last season – everything post-US Open – due to a foot problem then picked up a back injury that forced her to retire from her Australian Open fourth round in January. It was a tough blow given she had started the year so well, reaching the final in Auckland before her second-week run in Melbourne.

Svitolina returned to action in Dubai in the second half of February but admits it was perhaps a premature decision.

“It was difficult time for me to really accept that it is how it is right now, I have to deal with more injuries than I used to before. It’s always juggling between being match-ready, and being practice-ready, where you feel good but when you step on court for the match, it’s a completely different intensity, completely different feeling,” she said.

Svitolina feels she only started feeling healthy again and ready to play long match back-to-back two weeks prior to Madrid and she is now fully focused on being ready for Roland-Garros.

Finding her purpose

Away from the court, Svitolina has found herself a new mission, one that is dear to her heart. She has taken on the managing responsibilities and full ownership of the Ukrainian women’s national tennis team through her foundation, hoping to affect positive change across the tennis ecosystem in her home country.

“We try to have a new approach, try to involve different kinds of things to the team, because I feel like before we had a very simple, very old style with many years of the organisation and now we try to really bring something different, try to really be involved in this,” she explained.

“I feel like we have a great team, we have so many good girls right now in the top 100 and even outside. Everyone is pumped to play and now with the new format as well, I feel like we can be one of the strongest teams.

“Now there are more people watching tennis, more people involved, more kids wanting to become a tennis player.”

Through her foundation, Svitolina also runs tournaments for kids, operates mental health programs for young players, and holds camps during the summer. She also signed an agreement with a TV channel to make sure tennis matches can be viewed everywhere in Ukraine.

“It’s altogether, a mixture that really promotes tennis in Ukraine,” she added.

“This is, I feel, a great step forward. For me, I take it as my kind of mission to promote tennis, to promote sport in Ukraine. Because right now all the news are taken over by the war and for kids, it’s I think mentally very tough, seeing their parents under so much pressure, not knowing what the future holds for them.

“So at least for one or two hours, for a short period of time, to bring them those happy moments, moments where they can express themselves, where they can really enjoy doing something they love, enjoy sport.

“Many psychologists said that through sport, people release a lot of stress. So this is my mission right now, to make this happen, and I think with Billie Jean King Cup and the team we can really make a big step forward.”