Ukrainians haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years. There has been conflict, misery, uncertainty. But as one of the country’s most successful sports stars, Elina Svitolina hopes she can provide some joy during the bleakest of times.
“Politics is always going to be there and, constantly, every day, you hear bad news. That’s very tough, especially for kids and for the future. That’s why I try to do the best I can,” the tennis player tells CNN Sport.
The 24-year-old world No.4 is back in London, home for the last few years, reflecting on a recent trip to her homeland where she received a hero’s welcome after winning one of tennis’ biggest prizes, the season-ending WTA Finals.
One of the most consistent players on the Tour during the last two seasons, Svitolina concluded 2018 with the biggest title of her career. Victory over former US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the Singapore final also ensured she became the first Ukrainian to win the prestigious tournament.
“It’s been tough for Ukraine to focus on something different from politics, but I always say if everyone does their own job 100% everyone will be fine,” she adds.
“I just try to do the best I can, promote sport and that’s what’s most important for me.”
The Russia-Ukraine conflict escalated last month after Russian border guards intercepted and seized three Ukrainian navy boats off Crimea on November 25, the most dangerous clash between the two countries since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.
What began as a dispute over a trade agreement mushroomed into the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the wars over the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Ukrainian troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, though hostilities had subsided since a truce was signed in 2015.
The Odessa-born right-hander describes returning to Ukraine after her Singapore win as an opportunity to “share happy moments” with her compatriots.
Her schedule in Ukraine, she says, was relentless: daily 6.30am wake-up calls, 10pm finishes; tens of media interviews, tennis clinics, Q&A sessions. It was an unceasing list of engagement designed to inspire the next generation.
“My week was crazy,” Svitolina says, smiling. “It was amazing to see so many happy faces and lots of people inspired by my win.
“I didn’t really think that many people were watching and supporting and just following tennis.
“It definitely made me realize I have the input of young kinds and, for me, it’s very important to promote sport in Ukraine because in Ukraine we have lots of different stuff going on and sport is not on the front pages. That’s why I try to do my best, and what’s in my power, to promote sport and to introduce it for small kids.”
In February 2017, Svitolina became the first Ukrainian woman to break into the top 10 of the WTA rankings. With 13 career titles and a best ranking of third in the world, she is her country’s most successful tennis player by some distance.
Success, however, did not come easy, which is why she wants to smooth the path for young Ukrainians dreaming of following in her footsteps.
“There are lots of good players, lots of kids who want to play,” she says of the talent in Ukraine.
“I just think parents are not ready to invest in their child, and tennis is one of the most expensive sports, and that’s why it can be very challenging.
“I know my parents sacrificed a lot for me to start playing and then turning professional, so that’s why I know how tough it is. Hopefully, my success can bring sponsors and people involved, not only in tennis but general sport.
“I spoke to a lot of Ukrainian athletes and I know how tough it is in other sports to become an elite athlete so that’s why, hopefully, we’ll have more people investing in sport in Ukraine.”
Svitolina, the daughter of Mikhaylo Svitolin, a former wrestler, and Olena Svitolina, a competitive rower, dreamt of becoming world No.1 and winning grand slams.
“To be the greatest in Ukraine has always been my goal and when I finally reached world No. 3 it was a massive deal in Ukraine and this gave me lots of confidence.”
For all her consistency on the Tour, Svitolina, who lost a significant amount of weight before the French Open which sparked concern among some in the tennis community, has yet to progress beyond the quarterfinals of a grand slam.
Her change in physique, she has admitted, has made her quicker around the court.
She will spend Christmas in Switzerland, training in altitude for the start of the new season, ensuring she is physically ready for the Australian Open at the end of January.
“Grand slams are lifetime goals so they’re always going to be there,” she says of her ambitions for 2019.
“I try not to put any pressure on myself by saying I want to win this particular grand slam.”