Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina says she has a “mission” to help her country and wants to use her platform to provide hope to the war-torn nation.
The 27-year-old, who is in regular contact with her family and friends back in Ukraine, has taken a break from tennis to focus her efforts on raising funds and awareness of her country’s plight.
“It’s extremely tough because they [her family] tell their stories,” Svitolina told CNN Sport.
“I speak with my grandmother every day to know how she feels. It’s quite tough for her because for elderly people it’s most important to have a routine and, right now, there is lots of bombing and shooting going on in Odessa, in my hometown.
“It is important to stay in touch everyday with her to support her in any way that I can.
“One of the most important things as well is to keep their spirits up.”
Svitolina was born in Odessa, a strategically important port city which has been blockaded by Russian forces since the invasion.
She then moved to Kharkiv when she was 12 years old and says she felt helpless when watching the fierce fighting which has continued to rock the eastern city.
Aged 16, Svitolina left Ukraine to pursue her sporting ambitions but always had her country in her heart. She’s proud of her roots and smiles when recalling moments from her childhood that helped form such a strong bond with Ukraine.
She’s now channeled that love into her own foundation – which encourages children to learn life lessons through tennis – and that of UNITED24, an organization set up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with the aim of raising funds for medical supplies, defense and eventually the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure.
Svitolina was recently named an ambassador and spoke to Zelensky, who tasked her with uniting the sporting community and maintaining awareness.
“It was one of the moments I was most stressed, and even entering the tennis court I was not that stressed,” Svitolina said, speaking about her Zoom call with the president and her fellow ambassador, Ukrainian soccer great Andriy Shevchenko.
“But he was very kind and his speech was very motivating […] what he does, it takes a lot of courage.
“He just explained what Ukraine really needs these days and how he sees the situation in Ukraine right now. He’s still very, very much 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, notably in the tennis community, for later this year and she says the foundations have given her a clear purpose.
Amid the darkness, there has been some light. Svitolina found out she was pregnant just before the invasion started and is expecting a baby with partner and fellow tennis player Gael Monfils.
It’s what, alongside the mental fatigue caused by the invasion, made her take a break from the sport which she had tried to keep playing.
“It was quite a stressful couple of months in the beginning but yeah, I’m feeling much better,” she said.
“Of course, I’m still very, very sad about the situation that is happening right now and knowing how many people have lost their lives because of the invasion.
“It makes me very sad. And that’s why I try to, you know, to focus a little bit on my foundation, on the UNITED24, just to have a mission that I can help in anyway.”
While she has no motivation to return to tennis yet, she has the long-term goal of representing her country in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
She knows, perhaps more than most, just how unifying sport can be in times of such heartache and hardship, as demonstrated by the Ukrainian soccer team’s powerful World Cup qualifying campaign.
“It’s very important for people to give some different kind of information because, to be fair, I don’t understand 100% what is really happening in Ukraine,” she said.
“It is very, very tough for people to go through hell every single day. For people who are still in Ukraine, they are mentally struggling.
“There’s many, many things happening and they went through so much already, so I think to bring something different, it’s something I think that brings delight for them.”