Former World No 3 Elina Svitolina is back on tour and trying to find her feet again after maternity leave, and championing the Ukrainian cause at every possible given opportunity.
In every possible way, I want to make sure Ukraine is still in the news. Playing tournaments, trying to organise events on the side, connecting with people around the events - that's really important. The war continues, so we need to continue helping people. Elina Svitolina
Svitolina’s political awareness predates the invasion of her country, as she has always wanted to better understand how the system works.
“It’s a whole different world,” she told Alex Macpherson in an interview for the WTA website. “It’s something you have to educate yourself on because it keeps changing. You need to understand what’s really happening in your country and the world.”
Another Ukrainian, Lesia Tsurenko, endured a beating at the hands of the Iga Swiatek in Rome, and then thanked the World No 1 for her support of Ukraine ever since Russia invaded the country in 2022 February.
Tsurenko touched the Ukrainian flag on her shirt as they shook hands at the net.
“She thanked me for supporting Ukraine, but she did it also before in Miami,” Swiatek said. “It’s really nice and I really appreciate that. Well, I think there’s nothing to, kind of, thank for, because, for me, it’s pretty obvious that we should support Ukraine.
“Yeah, I will do that until the war is going to end. But I know that they are in a tough situation, so I have a lot of empathy to all the Ukrainian players.”
Swiatek organised a charity event in Poland last year, with all the proceeds going to the Ukraine relief fund, and continues to wear a Ukrainian ribbon on her cap.
Tsurenko defeated Svitolina, a two-time former champion in Rome, 6-4 6-3 in the 1st-round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, in no way diminishing the latter’s mission on tour.
Becoming a mother has underlined the necessity of trying to make the world a better place, and that is what is driving Svitolina these days.
“In every possible way, I want to make sure Ukraine is still in the news,” she told Macpherson. “Playing tournaments, trying to organise events on the side, connecting with people around the events – that’s really important.
“The war continues, so we need to continue helping people.”
Tsurenko shares the notion, as do all the other Ukrainian on tour, who, recently have stopped shaking hands with Russian and Belarusian players because they feel many still support their respective governments.
Daria Kasatkina feels that Ukrainians have good reason not to shake hands with Russian opposition due to the ongoing war, which she has been an outspoken critic of.
The 25-year-old beat Tsurenko in straight sets in the Madrid Open, and, following the match, the Ukrainian refused to shake the hand of the Russian No 1 and World No 8.
“The saddest thing is that the war is still going on, so the players from Ukraine have a lot of reasons not to shake hands with us,” Kasatkina said. “I take it, it’s a very sad situation.
“I was glad she waved back to me as she left the court.”
Russian and Belarusian players have been allowed to play as neutrals by the WTA, ATP and ITF since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Ninety-five per cent of Russian athletes cannot participate in international events, so I appreciate that we tennis players can,” said Kasatkina, who is looking forward to playing at Wimbledon again. “I was really sad that I couldn’t play there last year. Although, of course, there was a reason for it, it still hurt.
“I am glad that we will be able to return this year, we are lucky for the sport that we can still compete.”
In order to compete at Wimbledon, athletes from the two countries must sign a declaration confirming that they condemn the war, while they will not be permitted to receive support from their state or state-owned companies, which means that Kasatkina’s compatriot Veronika Kudermetova will have to change her kit.
Kudermetova’s sponsor Tatneft, an oil and gas company, was sanctioned by the European Union last June.
“I think for Wimbledon, it’s not allowed to play with the badge from Russia, I know that,” Kudermetova told reporters in Madrid. “If I would like to play Wimbledon, I need to take the badge off.
“I’m not breaking any rules at the moment, but I know we can’t wear logos associated with our country at Wimbledon. I take note, if I wanted to play at Wimbledon, I would have to remove it.”
Kasatkina has already signed the AELTC’s and LTA’s declaration.
“You will see the acceptance list,” said Kasatkina, smiling. “But yes, I signed it. I want to play and, for me, my career is the number one priority. So I want to play and I don’t see anything which would stop me to sign it.”
It seems, though, that Aryna Sabalenka’s Wimbledon participation is in some doubt as the Belarusian’s visa has yet to be approved by the British authorities.
At the start of the 2023 season, Sabalenka became a Grand Slam champion after beating Elena Rybakina in the Australian Open final.
In her post-final press conference, Sabalenka said: “I mean, missing the Wimbledon was really tough for me. It was tough moment for me. It’s not about Wimbledon right now.
“It’s just about the hard work I’ve done. I think everyone still knows that I’m Belarusian player. That’s it. It’s tough to explain what I’m feeling right now. I’m just super happy and proud. I don’t know how to explain. Just the best day of my life right now.”
Two years ago, Sabalenka reached the Wimbledon semi-final before losing to Karolina Pliskova in 3 sets, and, so far in 2023, she has made 5 finals and landed 3 titles, so if the World No 2 does get to compete at The Championships, there is no doubt that she will be among the favourites for the title.
Meanwhile, Kasatkina also supports the All England Club and LTA’s decision to help Ukrainian players during the British grass court season, for which the organisations will provide two hotel rooms and access to their exclusive training facilities.
“Most of the players, they cannot go back to their practice bases, they cannot go home,” said Kasatkina. “So I think it makes a lot of sense to give them the opportunity to practise in London at the All England Club.
“They cannot go back home, they have to be always on the road and they have to pay all the time for accommodation, so I think it makes a lot of sense to do this kind of thing.”
While on maternity leave, Svitolina threw herself into fundraising for Ukraine, spending ‘many hours’ learning the ropes of the business and applying what she had learned from a high-level sports career to a high-level political sphere.
She leveraged every connection she and her team had, and travelled tirelessly from one event to another to firm up support from the worlds of sports, politics, business and royalty.
Last December, the third edition of the Elina Svitolina Foundation’s charity gala was held in Monaco under the patronage of Prince Albert II.
In January, she appeared at Ukraine House Davos alongside Mykhailo Fedorov, the Vice President of Ukraine, and Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber.
It was demanding work, and her husband, Gaël Monfils, whose support Svitolina says was invaluable during this period, advised her to ‘slow down’, but her pregnancy was going smoothly and fundraising took her mind off it.
She has raised over €1m between the Elina Svitolina Foundation and United24, the platform set up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for which she acts as an ambassador.
The money has gone to projects such as the reconstruction of burned-out houses in Irpin, where over 1,000 buildings were destroyed in the Russian attack on the city.
In February, Svitolina was further bolstered by receiving a commemorative award from Zelenskiy for her efforts.
“It was a great moment for me,” she told wtatennis.com. “It was a great sign for my motivation, that I’m doing something good for my country and my people. It motivated me even more to do what I’m doing, and to try to do even more.
“It was great to speak to him, and to understand his view and how he sees. He goes to the frontline and sees what is really happening, so to meet him and speak to him was an unbelievable experience.”
Her comeback, which took her to the Saint-Malo WTA 125 semi-finals, is a vehicle to fight for something greater than herself – the survival of her country, the sustenance of her people, and for the world her daughter will grow up in.
She is working with a mental psychologist because of the war, and the tough mental toll it is taking.
“I work with a mental psychologist,” Svitolina said. “It’s tough for me with the war going on.
“After I went to Ukraine in February, I had to reset myself. It was extremely tough. When I feel I need help, I work for some time, and then let it go again, to leave on my terms.”
The mental toll is affecting many, with Ukrainian born Belgian Maryna Zanevska the latest to become overcome with panic and stress after a hearing siren go off while playing the Sant-Melo Open in France, so much so that she began to cry on the court.
She later took to social media, posting: “I had very weird feeling today during my match after winning first set. I have no idea why but the siren was on! For maybe 20 seconds but felt like forever!
”I have never been in Ukraine since 24th of February. I never experienced siren. But it was such a trigger point sound. My heartbeat was 200! I was overwhelmed. Usually when I step on court, it’s my place where I forget about my problems. But here it hit me badly!”
Svitolina praises Ukrainian players for continuing to play amidst the war: “Stories of young tennis players who have been living in full-scale war for more than a year… but the most important thing is that they don’t stop, and continue their way in tennis.”
That Svitolina will continue on her way, there is no doubt.