By now, nearly two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a familiar rhythm to Elina Svitolina’s days.
The missile attacks from Russia generally happen overnight, so in the morning, just after she opens her eyes, she grabs her phone to see where the bombs have fallen. There is a call to her grandmother in Odessa. No matter how many times Svitolina has asked, her grandmother has refused to leave her home and her cat.
There is time with her 15-month-old daughter, Skai. There are many hours of training. There are phone calls related to her own business, and many more related to fundraising and relief efforts for Ukraine, through her work with United24, Ukraine’s main war relief fundraising organization, the one her country’s president called to request her help with. Sometimes these stretch into the night and don’t finish until after she has put Skai to bed and had dinner with her husband, the French tennis player Gael Monfils.
It’s a lot, and yet Svitolina, the comeback player of the year in women’s tennis in 2023, insists she is lucky. She has her parents and her in-laws helping with Skai, and many others helping with the relief efforts and her other pursuits. And then there are all the soldiers, people she grew up with, doing the really hard work.
“I have a lot of friends, male friends, and they’re all at the front line,” the 29-year-old Svitolina says during a video interview from Monaco, where she was getting ready for the 2024 season.
There are tennis players who won more matches and earned more money in 2023 than Svitolina, and players who achieved more acclaim. But 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 which both tennis fans and those who paid little attention to the sport blanketed her with unique and unbridled adulation.
Were the roars for Carlos Alcaraz, the men’s Wimbledon champion, as loud as those for Svitolina during her run to the semi-finals at the All England Club, or to the quarter-finals of the French Open at Roland Garros weeks earlier? Definitely not.
Here was a different Svitolina, maybe even a better one than the Svitolina who rose to No 3 in the world in 2017 and won the WTA Tour finals the next year. That Svitolina didn’t have the steeliness, or the drive, or the purpose of this one, because during those few days last July, when Svitolina was the biggest story in the sport, or maybe in any sport, there was a new surety to those forehands and backhands she lasered down the lines in the tightest moments against the Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Iga Swiatek, the world No 1. There was a kind of serenity about her as she floated 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,” she says. “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.”
No one saw this coming. Here was a player coming back from giving birth, with so much of her attention focused on motherhood and on the trauma that her family and country were enduring. No one in the sport envisioned Svitolina shooting up the rankings so quickly, if ever.
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Well, actually, that’s not completely true.
Last January, three months after Skai was born, Svitolina reached out to Raemon Sluiter, a well-regarded Dutch tennis coach, to see if he would consider taking her on. Where others might have seen the challenges of a postpartum comeback, Sluiter saw an opportunity. There was no question about Svitolina’s raw talent. No one rises to No 3 in the world and wins the season-ending championship by accident. But there was another dynamic at play that made working with Svitolina so enticing for Sluiter.
With the tennis off-season so brief, players rarely get a chunk of time to really train and practise, to consider making changes to how they play.
“If you really want to change something, you have to cut your season short,” Sluiter said during a recent interview.
At the time of the initial call, Svitolina did not plan on returning to competition for another three months. Sluiter saw this as a golden chance for her to evolve. He told her not to worry about her busy life off the court. All she needed, he said, was to be dedicated and focused on tennis when she was training.
“I would take 30 minutes of quality training over two hours of just going through the motions,” Sluiter said. “It’s about being intentional and very present.”
If Svitolina was tired, or feeling overwhelmed, he told her to take the day off. Given everything else going on in Svitolina’s life, Sluiter knew this was a player and a person unlike any other.
Flash forward a few more months. It’s October and Svitolina’s 2023 tennis ride has come to an end. The pain from a stress fracture in her ankle, which began during the French Open, intensified during Wimbledon and became debilitating during the North American hardcourt swing, forced her to end her season after the U.S. Open.
This is when Svitolina told Monfils she wanted to visit Ukraine. Understandably protective, her husband was scared and wary. “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,” she says.
Monfils ultimately understood and, in November, Svitolina took the arduous trip involving the 10-hour train rides to Ukraine for 10 days, first to see her grandmother in Odessa, then to Kyiv and Dnipro, where she met with government officials and caught up with old friends, then to Kharkiv, which is just 20km (around 12 miles) from the Russian border.
Svitolina moved there when she was 12 to train and pursue her career as a pro tennis player. She went to see her old coaches and the club where she played her first tournaments and to be with the kids who are training there now and continuing with their lives amid the 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,” she said.
“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, that have to deal with the loss of their homes and, you know, just trying to really survive, to live a normal life. And of course, the soldiers, the men and women who are defending our country, who took the weapons in their hands.”
After she returned home, and as her ankle healed, Svitolina got back to work. Once more, Sluiter saw the injury as something of an opportunity, giving Svitolina an extended off-season to refine and develop her game without the pressure to return to competition.
Sluiter didn’t prescribe anything radical, rather, merely doing what she began to do last year to an even greater degree.
“She can approach matches with a more aggressive mindset and try to control matches more and play them more on her terms than on the opponent’s terms,” he said.
By mid-December, Svitolina was able to play “90 per cent pain-free”, though she remained concerned about how her ankle would feel on the hard courts of Auckland’s ASB Classic, her main tuneup before the Australian Open, and how sharp she might be. Coming back from childbirth, she largely struggled to win during the first six weeks. She found her form in late May in Strasbourg, the week before the French Open.
So far, so good.
With Skai in tow for her first big tennis road trip, 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 Coco Gauff, winner of the most recent Grand Slam event, who won 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3.
“I’m playing more freely,” Svitolina said last month. “Before, I was a tennis player from Ukraine. 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 per cent on each practice, each match, and do everything that is in my power.”
(Top photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)