Elina Svitolina condemns decision to allow Russian players to compete

‘It is not fair play’: Elina Svitolina condemns decision to allow Russian players to compete and admits it’s tough sharing locker room with supporters of the war… as she returns home to face the full impact on Ukraine

  • Elina Svitolina says it isn’t fair for Russian players to be allowed to compete 
  • The Ukrainian returned home last month to see the full scale effect of the war 
  • Svitolina is set to return to the circuit next month following a year out the game  

Elina Svitolina ventured back to Ukraine last month, and while she met with President Zelensky there was a personal reunion even more important to her.

The country’s best tennis player of this century to date will best remember visiting her beloved grandmother, who lives on the thirteenth floor of an apartment block in her native Odesa.

It was what she found there which most sharply reminded her of the everyday toll that 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 in many ways to be back it was also sad to see Odesa how it is now,’ says Svitolina, the 28 year-old former world number three, who will return to the circuit next month in Charleston after giving birth to her first child.

‘It’s difficult for my grandmother to ever 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.

Elina Svitolina returned to Ukraine last month and saw the effect the war has had on her home

Svitolina hasn’t played a match since losing to Heather Watson at the 2022 Miami Open 

‘There are a lot of military on the streets and 95% of the place is without lights. Only sometimes there is heat and it was incredibly difficult for people at the height of the winter when it has been minus five or minus ten.’

Svitolina knows that, among her compatriots, she is very 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 focussing on being back this summer at Wimbledon, where she made the semi-finals in 2019. She dreams of playing on the Centre Court again, but does not believe that 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 in my opinion, what Wimbledon did last year (banning players from Russia and Belarus) was the right decision. If that has been changed this year it’s very 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 world’s most consistent top ten 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. The place where I trained the most had its roof blown off by a missile.

‘Our sport has been set back at least ten years. Our athletes can’t train properly, and there are 150 athletes who have been killed fighting on the frontline. It’s obvious that it is not fair conditions.’

The country’s two most successful male players of recent times, Alex Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, have both taken up arms.

‘The war has brought the Ukrainiain players closer,’ she says. ‘And we are all agreed that this is not fair for us that they (those from Russia and Belarus) just 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 it is like this.

‘Mentally it is very tough knowing that maybe 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.’

Interestingly, she exempts from criticism men’s top tenner Andrey Rublev and women’s stars Daria Kasatkina and Anastasia Pavluychenkova.

It is now nearly a year since her last match, a defeat to Britain’s Heather Watson at the 2022 Miami Open.

The former world number 3 doesn’t understand why tennis is allowing Russian players to compete while other sports have banned them 

While returning home to Ukraine Svitolina met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy 

‘It was a really tough time for me. I had just been told a few days before that match that I was pregnant and mentally I was very distracted by the war. It was one of the toughest times of my life. In a way it was a good thing for me that this break came along.

‘The last year has been a mixture of everything, it feels like ten years of my life has been packed into one. For sure I see things differently now and there will be less pressure on me 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 six-hour tennis clinic for 400 children and met the President to discuss her fund-raising activities.

‘I started my foundation in 2019 and originally it was helping young people who wanted to become tennis players, but of course it has now widened to just helping families in general.

‘When I met with President Zelensky, we were talking about raising money for United 24, which is supporting the military and the rebuilding projects in Ukraine. So much has been destroyed by Russian missiles. (120 were launched in one period 24 hours during her stay, according to the app which 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. What I found is that 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.’

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