Even for the best athletes in the world, sport can be put to one side. Moreover, sometimes it has to be put to one side.
For Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina, a bronze medallist at Tokyo 2020, this is one such moment, where your focus shifts and tennis is not the number one priority.
Recently, she announced that she is expecting a first child with her husband, the French tennis player Gael Monfils. Together, they will welcome a little girl into the world in October.
It represents a happy moment in a difficult time for Svitolina, who temporarily walked away from the tennis tour in March after the war in Ukraine began.
In an exclusive interview with Olympics.com, she talked about the choices she has made, her life right now and her goals for the future.
Staying in contact with her family
Life has been very difficult for the Odessa-born athlete since the war began in Ukraine. Additionally, she has been suffering with chronic back pain that also played a part in her taking time off from tennis.
“It was tough for me to deal with everything,” she said during the Global Sports Week in Paris. "[It was] a mixture of everything and it was a lot on my shoulders. That’s why taking time to settle down and spending time with my family was the best decision, particularly with everything that is happening over the last few days.”
Those “last few days” had been extremely stressful for Svitolina, after the southern Ukraine city of Odessa had become a target for bombing. It is her a city where her family still lives.
While her parents were able to leave the country, her grandmother is still in the city, trying to remain safe from the attacks.
“I speak with her as often as I can. There are a lot of explosions and she’s been in the basement for most of the time. Hopefully she is safe.
“I have been staying in contact as much as I can, but it’s not always possible. I just cross my fingers and pray that everything is fine out there.”
Supporting each other
The former World No. 3 is fully focused on helping her family, and she is not alone. She also receives support from others, including from other athletes in the community.
“We try to help each other in every way possible, for the sake of our families. It has really united us. A lot of people ask me how my family is doing or whether I need anything, so this has been a huge help for the people of Ukraine. We are all hoping for one thing: peace for our country.”
She also counts on the support of Monfils, who she married last July and who was recently forced to withdraw from the upcoming French Open because of a foot injury.
“Gael has been here every step of the way. He is a huge support. Obviously, he sees that I’m not in the best mood every day. There are ups and downs, so I’m really thankful for his support. I know it’s difficult for him to see me sad.”
Elina Svitolina: “I take strength from all the people in Ukraine”
In April, Monfils declared to French newspaper Le Parisien that he “couldn't understand how [Svitolina] managed to play in Indian Wells and Miami”, and added that he was “in awe of his wife” as he thinks it's “exceptional to find such an energy in such tough moments”.
For Svitolina, this is something that goes beyond energy.
“I take strength from all the people who are there right now in Ukraine. I cannot imagine what they are going through, how mentally difficult it is. And I take what they do, how much strength and bravery they show; I take it as a huge motivation to wake up every day and do something for people who are in need, to do something that can help people. For me right now, my family and my foundation are the priorities. ”
Helping people is something she does naturally. Back in 2019, she created a foundation with the mission to “help encourage children through the sport of tennis to learn the values of hard work, self-discipline”.
It’s something that makes even more sense these days.
“Right now, we're helping kids who are playing tennis. The goal is to give them a chance to keep pursuing their tennis dreams. We give them the opportunity to continue training in Europe. My foundation is paying for their accommodation, food and training - it’s really important to give them a chance to keep dreaming and keep playing the sport they love.”
Winning another Olympic medal for Ukraine at Paris 2024
Tennis is obviously not her priority at the moment, but it doesn't mean it's not on her mind. In a little over two years, the Olympics will be held in Paris and the tennis competition will take place at Roland-Garros. It’s a place that is very special for Svitolina, who has reached the quarterfinals three time in 2015, 2017 and 2020.
“The Paris Olympics are almost like a home Olympics,” said Svitolina.
“It's something that really speaks to my heart.”
And her next big sporting goal will be to win a medal at Paris 2024, after clinching bronze at Tokyo 2020 in the women’s event where she beat Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova in the bronze medal match having lost the first set and been a break down in the second.
It was the first tennis medal from a Ukrainian athlete.
“My goal is to play in the Olympics here in Paris. Hopefully [Monfils and I] can both prepare in the best way possible. I'll try to be 100% ready for it and to do my best, with the hope of bringing home another medal for Ukraine.”
“Seeing the Ukrainian flag next to your name gives you extra energy”
A professional tennis player travels the whole year round playing tournaments under their own name. Svitolina has won 16 titles in her career, including the 2018 Masters and four WTA 1000 tournaments.
But at the Olympics, you compete under the flag of your country - and the difference is huge.
“Every time you step onto the court and play for your country at the Olympics you feel extra pressure, but I take it as motivation. I love this type of pressure,” explained Svitolina.
“I feel like this is a challenge and seeing the flag next to your name, seeing the Ukrainian flag raised when you win… it gives you extra energy, an extra push. Many people are watching, so you don’t want to disappoint them. It’s a big challenge but it motivates me to do my best.
“The love and support I received from the Ukrainian people was incredibly special.”
For Svitolina, the support doesn’t just go one way, and she proves that every day by helping other Ukrainians and through the work she does with her foundation. That, in addition to her family, is her priority right now.
And maybe in 26 months, when the Olympic tennis competition takes place at Roland-Garros, sport will once again be on her list of priorities.