At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.
Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.
Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.
“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,’” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.
“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”
Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.
The top seed Alcaraz beat 112th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. The Spaniard gets 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in the third round. Djokovic, the No. 3 seed, swept 83rd-ranked Hungarian Marton Fucsovics 7-6 (2), 6-0, 6-3 to reach a third-round date with 29th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.
Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.
Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.
Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.
“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”
Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.
“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”
Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.
“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”
Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name -- unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.
“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”
Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.
“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.
“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.
“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”
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