Don’t let Russians return, it’s not fair to us
Svitolina’s horror at Wimbledon lifting ban
Elina Svitolina ventured back to Ukraine last month, and although she met president volodymyr Zelensky there was a personal reunion even more important to her.
the country’s finest tennis player this century will best remember visiting her beloved grandmother, who lives on the 13th floor of an apartment block in her native odesa.
it was what she found there which most sharply reminded her of the toll the invasion is taking, and reaffirmed her belief that tennis — including Wimbledon — cannot separate politics and sport when it comes to this war.
‘While it was heart-warming to be back it was also sad to see odesa how it is now,’ says Svitolina, the 28-year-old former world no 3, who will return to the circuit next month in Charleston after giving birth to her first child in october.
‘it’s difficult for my grandmother to go out because the lift does not work where she lives. this is what it’s like. odesa is a lovely place where people used to go on holiday, it is a very chilled vibe normally but now it is very sad.
‘there are a lot of military on the streets and 95 per cent of the place is without lights. only sometimes there is heat and it was difficult for people at the height of the winter when it has been minus five or minus 10.’
Svitolina knows that, among her compatriots, she is fortunate. She is married to charismatic French star Gael Monfils and has spent much of the last year at their Monaco base, raising money and sending it back home.
She gave birth to their daughter, Skai, last october, and is now focusing on being back this summer at Wimbledon, where she made the semi-finals in 2019. She dreams of playing on Centre Court again, but does not believe players from Russia and Belarus should be there with her.
that now appears most likely to be the case, as British tennis comes under threat of more sanctions from the two tours, who are deeply opposed to individual suspensions.
‘it’s not supposed to be like this, what Wimbledon did last year (banning players from Russia and Belarus) was the right decision. if that has been changed this year it’s sad because the war is still terrible, the Russian army is still killing a lot of innocent people. it is not fair play.’
Svitolina, one of the most consistent top-10 players of the past decade, spent some of her formative years training in Kharkiv.
‘i think there is only one place where i used to train still working,’ she says. ‘the place where i trained the most had its roof blown off by a missile. our sport has been set back 10 years. our athletes can’t train properly, and 150 athletes have been killed fighting on the front line.’
Ukraine’s two most successful male players of recent times, alex Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, have taken up arms.
‘ the war has brought the Ukrainian players closer,’ she says. ‘and we are all agreed this is not fair for us that they (those from Russia and Belarus) carry on. other sports, olympic sports, are not allowing Russian athletes to compete, it’s pretty much only tennis that is allowing them in and i don’t know why. ‘Mentally it is very tough knowing there are some players with you in the locker room who are supporting the war. as most of them have not come out with a clear statement you never know what they are really thinking.’
She exempts from criticism men’s top-tenner andrey Rublev and women’s stars Daria Kasatkina and anastasia Pavlyuchenkova — all of whom are Russian.
it is now nearly a year since her last match, a defeat by Britain’s Heather Watson at the 2022 Miami open. She says: ‘it was a tough time. i had been told a few days before i was pregnant, and mentally i was distracted by the war. it was one of the toughest times of my life. in a way it was good that this break came along.
‘ the last year has been a mixture of everything, it feels like 10 years has been packed into one. i see things differently now and there will be less pressure when i come back. i have so many more things in my life.’
Svitolina, one of the country’s best-known athletes, entered Ukraine through Moldova and went via odesa to Kyiv. While there she staged a marathon sixhour tennis clinic for 400 children and met the president to discuss her fund-raising activities.
‘i started my foundation in 2019
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and originally it was helping young people who wanted to become tennis players, but it has widened to just helping families.
‘When i met with President Zelensky, we talked about raising money for United24, which supports the military and the rebuilding projects.
‘So much has been destroyed by Russian missiles. ( 120 were launched in one period 24 hours during her stay, according to the app citizens use to alert them).
‘When i start to play again it will have to be without my daughter at first, which will be tough, but i can use my position to help.
‘the spirit of the Ukrainian people is still incredible, they are doing their best to bring victory. People are trying to enjoy what they can today because they know there might be no tomorrow.’
‘Why is tennis the only sport allowing the other side to compete?’