Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina says she has a “mission” to help her country and wants to use her platform to bring hope to the war-torn country.
The 27-year-old, who is in regular contact with her family and friends in Ukraine, has taken a tennis break to focus her efforts on raising funds and raising awareness of her country’s plight.
“It’s extremely difficult because they… [her family] tell their story,” Svitolina told DailyExpertNews Sport.
“I speak to my grandmother every day to know how she is feeling. It’s quite hard for her because for older people it’s very important to have a routine and right now there are a lot of bombings and shootings in Odessa, in my hometown.
“It is important to stay in touch with her every day to support her in every way possible.
“One of the most important things is to keep your spirits up.”
Svitolina was born in Odessa, a strategically important port city that has been blocked by Russian forces since the invasion.
When she was 12 years old, she moved to Kharkov and says she felt helpless as she witnessed the fierce fighting that rocked the eastern city.
At the age of 16, Svitolina left Ukraine to pursue her sporting ambitions, but she always had her country in her heart. She is proud of her roots and smiles when she recalls moments from her childhood that formed such a strong bond with Ukraine.
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 founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to raise money for medical supplies, defense and ultimately rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.
Svitolina was recently appointed ambassador and spoke to Zelensky, who instructed her to unite the sports community and maintain awareness.
“It was one of the moments when I was the most stressed, and even when I entered the tennis court I wasn’t that stressed,” said Svitolina, speaking of her Zoom conversation with the president and her fellow ambassador, the Ukrainian football great. Andriy Shevchenko.
“But he was very nice and his speech was very motivating […] what he does takes a lot of courage.
“He just explained what Ukraine really needs today and how he sees the situation in Ukraine right now. He is still very motivated and he loves Ukraine and he will die for our country.
“And this is definitely something that all Ukrainian people are looking for, for this kind of person who gives his life for the country.”
It’s still early days, but Svitolina is already planning events, particularly in the tennis community, for later this year and says the foundations have given her a clear goal.
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In the midst of the darkness there has been some light. Svitolina found out just before the invasion that she was pregnant and expecting a baby with partner and fellow tennis player Gael Monfils.
It’s what, in addition to the mental fatigue caused by the invasion, caused her to take a break from the sport she’d been trying to keep playing.
“It was a stressful couple of months in the beginning, but yes, I feel much better,” she said.
“Obviously I am still very, very saddened by the current situation and knowing how many people lost their lives because of the invasion.
“It makes me very sad. And that’s why, you know, I’m trying to focus a little bit on my foundation, on the UNITED24, just to have a mission that I can help with anyway.”
While she has no motivation to return to tennis yet, she has the long-term goal of representing her country at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
She knows, perhaps more than most, how sport can unite in times of so much grief and hardship, as evidenced by the Ukraine football team’s vigorous qualifying campaign.
“It’s very important that people give a different kind of information because to be honest, I don’t understand 100% what is really happening in Ukraine,” she said.
“It’s very, very hard for people to go through hell every day. For the people who are still in Ukraine, they are having a hard time mentally.
“A lot, a lot of things are happening and they’ve been through so much already, so I think I can bring something different, it’s something that I think will delight them.”