Elina Svitolina: Ukrainian tennis player on a “mission” to help a war-torn country


The 27-year-old, who is in regular contact with her family and friends in Ukraine, has taken a break from tennis to focus on fundraising and raising awareness of her country’s plight.

“It’s extremely tough because they [her family] tell their stories,” Svitolina told CNN Sport.

“I talk to my grandmother every day to see how she’s feeling. It’s quite hard for them because the most important thing for older people is to have a routine and right now there’s a lot of bombing and shooting in Odessa, my hometown.

“It’s important to keep in touch with her every day to support her in any way we can.

“One of the most important things is also to keep their spirits up.”

Elina Svitolina wants to help Ukraine with her platform.

UNITED24

Svitolina was born in Odessa, a strategically important port city blocked by Russian forces since the invasion.

She then moved to Kharkiv when she was 12 and says she felt helpless watching the fierce fighting that continues to rock the eastern city.

Svitolina left Ukraine at the age of 16 to pursue her sporting ambitions but always had her country in her heart. She’s proud of her roots and smiles as she recalls moments from her childhood that helped form such a strong bond with Ukraine.

Tennis star Elina Svitolina says all prize money she wins at the Monterrey Open goes to the Ukrainian army
She has now channeled that love into her own foundation – which encourages children to learn life lessons through tennis – and that of UNITED24, an organization set up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with the aim of raising funds for medical, defense and… finally the reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure.

Svitolina was recently named ambassador and spoke to Zelensky, who tasked her with uniting the sports community and raising awareness.

“That was one of the moments when I was most stressed, and even stepping onto the tennis court I wasn’t that stressed,” Svitolina said, speaking via her Zoom call with the president and her fellow ambassador, Ukrainian soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.

“But he was very nice and his speech was very motivating […] what he does, it takes a lot of courage.

“He just explained what Ukraine really needs these days and how he sees the situation in Ukraine now. He’s still very, very motivated and he loves Ukraine and he will die for our country.

“And that’s definitely something that all Ukrainians are looking for, that kind of person who gives their life for the country.”

It’s early days but Svitolina is already planning events, particularly in the tennis community, for later this year and she says the foundations have given her a clear goal.

pregnancy

Some light has appeared in the midst of the darkness. Svitolina found out she was pregnant just before the invasion began and is expecting a baby with her partner and fellow tennis player Gael Monfils.

Along with the mental exhaustion caused by the invasion, this has prompted her to take a break from the sport she had been trying to pursue.

“It was a pretty stressful couple of months at first, but yeah, I’m feeling a lot better,” she said.

“Of course I’m still very, very sad about the situation that’s happening right now and knowing how many people lost their lives to the invasion.

“That makes me very sad. And so I’m trying, you know, to focus a bit on my foundation, on UNITED24, just to have a mission that I can help with in some way.”

Although she has no motivation to return to tennis just yet, her long-term goal is to represent her country at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

She knows perhaps more than most how unifying sport can be in times of such heartache and hardship, as Ukraine’s soccer team has demonstrated in its strong World Cup qualifying campaign.

“It’s very important that people give other information, because to be honest, I don’t understand 100 percent what’s really happening in Ukraine,” she said.

“It’s very, very hard for people to go through hell every day. For people who are still in Ukraine, they have mental problems.

“There are many, many things happening and they’ve been through so much already, so I think to bring something different, it’s something that brings them joy.”