Ukraine tennis star Elina Svitolina said the plight of her compatriots fighting the war against Russia had helped her to lift to new heights at the ASB Classic this week.
The second seed lost an three set epic final 6-7 (4) 6-3 6-3 to world No 3 Coco Gauff on Sunday evening, a remarkable effort considering what she had been through across the tournament.
Svitolina was arguably the story of the week. She beat Caroline Wozniacki and Emma Raducanu en route to the decider, with the latter an extraordinary match. The 29-year-old was in doubt for the final, with hip, back and foot injuries that almost ended her semifinal prematurely.
But Svitolina never relented, across a tournament where she spent more than 10 hours on court. Asked where her fighting spirit came from, Svitolina said the Russian invasion of her homeland put any sporting challenges in perspective.
“I always remind myself that there are people right now, men and women, who are fighting for our country,” said Svitolina. “And I’m here in a safe place and I have this amazing opportunity to play tennis in front of so many people, the sport that I love and I have to treasure this moment.”
“I have to fight. These people who are fighting really give me this motivation, give me this courage and this unbreakable spirit, they really motivate me to bring my best version of myself. So I’m really proud that I’m Ukrainian, proud that we have this spirit in us. We are fighting for our freedom and this is what I have every day in me and just huge motivation to give 100 per cent each time I step on the court.”
Elina Svitolina. Photo / Photosport
Svitolina has been receiving numerous messages from people in Ukraine following her progress in Auckland and hoped that her efforts brought some small joy. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives, with hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes.
“I got many messages that they watch, they support me,” said Svitolina. “I always played later in the evening [here] and for them, it’s like 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and a lot of people are watching. They are telling me that this brings a little bright moment in their days because some days are very, very tough. This really fills my heart with a lot of warmth and that’s why I draw motivation out of these situations.”
“It’s sad that I couldn’t win [the final] to bring the trophy to my country,” added Svitolina. “But in the end it’s all about fighting spirit. It’s about enjoying the big fights and hopefully there will be more opportunities to play finals.”
Her courage was obvious on Sunday, as Svitolina took the court less than 24 hours after her 143-minute semifinal on Saturday night, where she had needed medical intervention to continue. The final was another physical test, as she carried multiple issues.
“So, let me start this list,” smiled Svitolina. “My back, my hip, my toes are completely bruised like five of them and I have pain in my knee. It took me 45 minutes to get taped up. So it takes a team.”
Elina Svitolina receives medical attention during the ASB Classic semifinal. Photo / Getty Images
Svitolina still believed she could prevail – “What’s the point of going on the court if you don’t believe that you can win the match?” especially after edging the first set.
“It’s upsetting because in the end you just convince yourself that you can make it,” said Svitolina. “But in the end it would be a miracle if I would win [on Sunday] because the way I was feeling the last few days and in the mornings I could barely lift my legs. Everything was a bonus and I’m happy.”
The week had been perfect preparation for the Australian Open next week, with a series of tough matches.
“At the beginning of the year to have many matches in a row, really high quality - this happens very rarely,” said Svitolina. “In my career it happened only a couple of times.”
The priority now will be recovery and maybe a bit of sightseeing in Auckland, as she stays on to watch husband Gael Monfils (37) in the men’s ASB Classic, with his first round match on Monday night.
“I’m quite nervous when I’m watching him play because sometimes you don’t know what to expect from him but he’s such an entertaining player,” said Svitolina. “And of course I want him to win each time that he plays. [But] the most important thing is that he is healthy because when he’s healthy, he really can deliver an unbelievable level. For him and for me the health is the priority. I guess we are not young anymore.”
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns.
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