'Bigger goals' at play for Tsurenko

Ukrainian draws on extra motivation ahead of fourth-round showdown with Swiatek

Lesia Tsurenko, third round, Roland-Garros 2023© Julien Crosnier/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Motivation to compete for a greater cause beyond the realms of sport and personal gains fuels Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko’s competitive fires these days.

At 34, having struggled through a long list of injuries – including a recurring right elbow complaint – many would have called time on a playing career that carried her as high as world No.23 four years ago.

Tsurenko’s perspective on the outcome of her matches has altered enormously in the past year and a half due to the ongoing conflict in her home country.

It prompted serious contemplation on her playing future and what really mattered.

“It was actually a big decision for me to stay in tennis. I think what really helped me is that I increased my work with a psychologist. I increased a lot because I had panic attacks, and I had really tough time,” Tsurenko said after reaching the fourth round for the second time in Paris.

“So for me it was a learning process [on] how to continue playing in these conditions and how to try to go on court and with some bigger goals.

Lesia Tsurenko, third round, Roland-Garros 2023© Julien Crosnier/FFT

“You know, not just play tennis, but I will be honest. I want to earn as [much] as I can to donate as [much] as I can. This is actually a bigger thing that I have in my mind when I decided that I will continue playing and I will be on tour.”

Yet to drop a set in her ninth Roland-Garros campaign, Tsurenko has already taken down two former major champions en route – 2021 Roland-Garros winner Barbora Krejcikova and Bianca Andreescu, who took the US Open title in 2019.

Tough test ahead

Her next opponent is a considerable step up.

In two previous encounters with Iga Swiatek – in the first round in Paris last year and in Rome last month – she salvaged just two games each time.

“Probably one of the biggest challenges on tour right now,” Tsurenko said. “She is No.1 in the world.

Lesia Tsurenko, third round, Roland-Garros 2023© Julien Crosnier/FFT

“I just had a match against her in Rome, which I think it was good just to feel how she's playing and to feel the speed of her shots… It was a good lesson for me.”

Before qualifying for Roland-Garros last year, Tsurenko journeyed from Spain across Europe and eventually crossed into Poland to collect her car from the Ukrainian border.

A change of approach

Compatriot Marta Kostyuk suggested she relocate her training base to the Piatti Academy on the Italian Riviera, and by season’s end she had contested the main draw of all four majors for the first time since 2018.

“I don't have so much pain right now, so I can practise more, I can play more,” she said. “Of course, it makes me very happy that I'm playing, and I did not expect that. I'll be honest, at the beginning of this year I did not expect.

“Of course, I'm winning a lot of matches, which is a great feeling for sure. I tried to stay focused. And, believe me, I always remember about my country and about my people, Ukrainian people.”

Mutual support

Tsurenko is one of two Ukrainian women through to the last 16. The other, compatriot Elina Svitolina, has been providing no shortage of inspiration this week.

Svitolina has built a seven-match winning streak in a comeback that is fast gathering momentum.

“Her case, her return, is inspirational,” Tsurenko said. “And I was really unhappy when I saw the draw in Rome. I was, like, I don't want to play against Elina because I'm wishing her the best, and I go on court to beat her… Of course, we keep in touch. We support each other.

“Definitely it's great to have someone like her, a great champion in tennis, in Ukrainian tennis history.”

Elina Svitolina, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT