Now, almost two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Elina Svitolina’s days have a familiar rhythm.
Missile attacks from Russia generally happen at night, so in the morning, right after he opens his eyes, he picks up his phone to see where the bombs failed. There is a call to his grandmother in Odessa. No matter how many times Svitolina asked her, her grandmother refused to leave her house and her cat.
There is time with his 15-month-old daughter, Skai. The training hours are many. There are calls related to his business, and many more related to fundraising and relief efforts for Ukraine, through his work with United24, Ukraine’s main war relief fundraising organization, the one for which the president of his country called to request his help. Sometimes these last late into the night and don’t end until she’s put Skai to bed and has dinner with her husband, French tennis player Gael Monfils.
That’s a lot, and yet Svitolina, the comeback player of the year in women’s tennis in 2023, insists she’s lucky. She has her parents and her in-laws who help her with Skai, and many others who help her with rescues and her other activities. And then there are all the soldiers, the people she grew up with, who do the really hard work.
“I have a lot of friends, male friends, and they are all on the front line,” the 29-year-old Svitolina says during a video interview from Munich, where she was preparing for the 2024 season.
There are tennis players who in 2023 have won more matches and earned more money than Svitolina, and players who have achieved more acclaim. But it’s hard to imagine any player having had a more shocking and impactful year, a remarkable journey from the minor leagues to Wimbledon Center Court during which tennis fans and those who paid little attention to the sport alike covered in unique and unbridled adulation.
Were the roars of Carlos Alcaraz, the Wimbledon men’s champion, as loud as those of Svitolina during her run to the semi-finals at the All England Club, or the quarter-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros weeks earlier? Surely not.
Here is a different Svitolina, perhaps even better than the one who rose to No. 3 in the world in 2017 and won the WTA Tour finals the following year. That Svitolina didn’t have the resolve, drive or purpose of this one, because in those few days last July, when Svitolina was the biggest story in the sport, or perhaps any other sport, there was a new confidence in Those forehands and backhands that she lasered along the lines in the most difficult moments against the Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Iga Swiatek, the world number 1. There was a kind of serenity about her as she floated from one match and moment to another.
“All this motivation around me, with different kind of projects with my foundation, with United24, with all the people behind me, I received huge support from Ukrainians, but also from all over the world and it really motivated me to do more, to really push myself,” he says. “I found myself in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros, then in the semi-finals of Wimbledon, playing great tennis and being super motivated, with a fresh mind and new energy.”
Nobody expected it. Here was a player returning from giving birth, with much of her attention focused on motherhood and the trauma her family and her country were enduring. No one in the sport imagined Svitolina climbing the ranks so quickly, if ever.
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Well, that’s actually not entirely true.
Last January, three months after Skai was born, Svitolina contacted Raemon Sluiter, a respected Dutch tennis coach, to see if he would consider hiring her. Where others might have seen the challenges of a postpartum comeback, Sluiter saw an opportunity. There was no doubt about Svitolina’s raw talent. Nobody gets to number 3 in the world and wins the season-ending championship by chance. But there was another dynamic at play that made working with Svitolina so appealing to Sluiter.
With the tennis break being so short, players rarely have any time to train and practice, to consider making changes to the way they play.
“If you really want to change something, you have to shorten your season,” Sluiter said during a recent interview.
At the time of the first call-up Svitolina had no intention of returning to competitions for another three months. Sluiter saw this as a golden opportunity for her to evolve. He told her not to worry about her busy life off the field. All she needed, she said, was to dedicate and concentrate on tennis while she trained.
“I would take 30 minutes of quality training over two hours of just doing the movements,” Sluiter said. “It’s about being intentional and very present.”
If Svitolina was tired or feeling overwhelmed, he told her to take a day off. Given everything that was going on in Svitolina’s life, Sluiter knew that this was a player and a person unlike any other.
Let’s jump forward a few more months. It’s October and Svitolina’s 2023 tennis journey has come to an end. Pain from a stress fracture in her ankle, which began during the French Open, intensified during Wimbledon and weakened during the North American hardcourt swing, forced her to end her season after the U.S. Open.
That’s when Svitolina told Monfils that she wanted to visit Ukraine. Understandably protective, her husband was scared and wary. “Even though it is my homeland, it is still difficult for him to understand that I want to go back, I want to go to the country where there is war,” he says.
Monfils understood, and in November, Svitolina took the arduous 10-hour train journey to Ukraine for 10 days, first to see her grandmother in Odessa, then to Kiev and Dnipro, where she met government officials and caught up with old friends, then to Kharkiv, which is only 20 km from the Russian border.
Svitolina moved there when she was 12 to train and pursue her professional tennis career. She went to visit her old coaches and the club where she played her first tournaments and to be with the boys who now train there and continue their lives in the midst of the war.
“It is a great motivation for me to see that life goes on in Ukraine; “They have this unbreakable spirit where nothing can really bother them, nothing can break their spirit,” she said.
“This is really a great motivation for me when I’m playing a difficult match. When I face difficult times in my life, I always remind myself of the people who have to deal with war, who have to deal with the loss of their homes and, you know, just trying to really survive, to live a normal life. life. And, of course, the soldiers, the men and women who defend our country, who have taken up arms.”
After returning home and her ankle healing, Svitolina returned to work. Once again, Sluiter saw the injury as something of an opportunity, giving Svitolina an extended break to refine and develop her game without the pressure of returning to competition.
Sluiter did not prescribe anything radical, in fact, she simply did to an even greater extent what she started doing last year.
“He can approach matches with a more aggressive mentality and try to control matches more and play them more on his terms than on his opponent’s,” he said.
By mid-December Svitolina was able to play “90% pain-free”, although she was still worried about how her ankle would feel on the hard courts at the ASB Classic in Auckland, her main tune-up before the Australian Open, and as sharp as it could be. After returning from giving birth, she struggled a lot to win during the first six weeks. She found her form again at the end of May in Strasbourg, the week before the French Open.
So far, so good.
With Skai in tow for her first big tennis journey, Svitolina won her first four matches in Auckland, two against former Grand Slam champions Carolina Wozniacki and Emma Raducanu, before losing a tight final to eventual winner Coco Gauff of the most recent Grand Slam. event, which he won 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3.
“I play more freely,” Svitolina said last month. “Before I was a Ukrainian tennis player. But right now it’s very different. Different motivation, different goals. And for me it’s important every single day to take the opportunity, to give 100% in every training session, in every game and do everything in my power.”
(Top photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)