Clijsters, Pennetta hail Svitolina's mother of all comebacks

The former world No.3 has returned to the top after becoming a parent last year

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

There were plenty of tears from Elina Svitolina following her fourth-round win over Daria Kasatkina on Sunday. There were also tears from her team and from many in the crowd on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.

The Ukrainian has continued her renaissance at Roland-Garros, heading into the quarter-finals in her first Grand Slam back after becoming a mother.

In March 2022, the former world No.3 left tennis on the back burner, giving birth to baby Skai in October last year.

Svitolina, married to French favourite Gael Monfils, put in the hard yards and returned to the tour in April at the Charleston Open in the United States.

In such a short space of time, Svitolina compiled an 8-6 match record coming into Paris, which included a title run in Strasbourg on the eve of Roland-Garros.

The Ukrainian didn't stop there. She dismissed last year's semi-finalist Martina Trevisan in the first round, then went on to stun world No.9 Kasatkina 6-4, 7-6(5) in the last 16.

The transition back to the top has been instant, catching the attention of former players, and fellow mothers, Kim Clijsters and Flavia Pennetta.

Clijsters is an expert in this field, having returned from giving birth to her first child in 2008 to lift the 2009 US Open trophy on her Grand Slam comeback.

“It’s about finding a balance, using what you know from the past, where you’ve always wanted to get to, you have something to compare yourself to," the former world No.1 told at the Legends' Trophy by Emirates press event.

“Then there’s also an extra purpose in your life, that gives you that drive, that extra focus. To me in my situation, that wasn’t there before [becoming a mother].

“I loved it. I was able to turn off the tennis switch in my head, and go home after you’ve done whatever we have to do onsite, then enjoy the time with my family, play with my kid, go for a walk, whatever that you do as a mum.

“When you go to the courts, you must focus, you know the kids are in good hands. It really helped me to be able to switch off and then turn it on when I had to. Its an important balance to find."

Svitolina has Australian Open champion and world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in her path for a maiden Roland-Garros semi-final ticket. They square off on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Tuesday.

Clijsters is sure Svitolina has already shown the grit and game to keep on pulling off the upsets.

"Listen, at this stage of the tournament, anything is possible," added Clijsters. "If Sabalenka is playing her best tennis, she has the strength to overpower an opponent completely, but there's also moments where she can drop her game a little bit, making some more unforced errors. 

"Svitolina is somebody who defends well, will hang in there, will fight, just keep hustling. She can definitely break down somebody's game."

Kim Clijsters, Media Day, Roland-Garros 2023© Pauline Ballet/FFT

Meanwhile, 2015 US Open champion Pennetta is also taken aback by Svitolina's swift return to the top.

"She was amazing," said the Italian, referring to the 28-year-old's win over Kasatkina.

"I was working on TV and watching the match. I kept saying 'she has to win', I was backing her. She's amazing, to come back to this level after so many months out, to have a child, to already win a title, to be in the quarters, she's an inspiration.

"The mentality she must have, the physicality she must have, because to be on court and playing so well already is not easy at all, especially after stopping for a year.

"Also in France, I think she feels at home because of being with Monfils. I'm very happy for her."

Pennetta knows the favourites will be hard to stop, but is adamant Svitolina shouldn’t be counted out.

"For me Iga [Swiatek] is a wall. With Aryna Sabalenka, they are a little bit up from the others, but the situation is real," continued the Italian, who has three children with her husband, fellow tennis star Fabio Fognini. 

"It's much more different from my times, when the top 10, the top 20 was really powerful and the difference to the rest was too much.

"Every tournament, every Slam now can be won by another player."