Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina wants Russian and Belarusian players to say if they oppose the war in her country.
“For us, for Ukrainians, it’s very important that they express themselves, that they choose which side they are on. We want to know, we want to feel safe about this. Because if they don’t say their opinion on it, we don’t know if they support their government, if they support the action of the army,” Svitolina told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Because in Russia and Belarus, sport is big propaganda.”
In an interview with the AP, Svitolina also addressed mental health and feeling overwhelmed by war angst.
The mental strain led the former third-ranked Ukrainian to make the decision to take a break from tennis. She said stress also exacerbates persistent back problems.
“For me, it’s been a really tough month mentally to hold it all on my shoulders. That’s why it was a better decision to take my time to really settle in,” she said. “To be on top of the game, you have to be 100% mentally and physically fit. For me, that wasn’t the case.”
The Wimbledon tournament, which begins on June 27, has banned players from Russia and Belarus due to the war. The French Open, from May 22, allows them to compete as neutral players. For Svitolina, it’s more about breaking the silence.
Svitolina was asked if Russian and Belarusian players had personally told him they were against the war.
“Very few. It’s very sad because many athletes from different countries came to us and showed their support,” Svitolina said. “That’s why it really hurts us and we don’t understand exactly why they [Russian and Belarusian players] doesn’t.”
Shootings, explosions in the hometown
The war is now in its 11th week. Kyiv bogged down enemy troops but Russia pounded the port of Odessa.
“The past few days there have been shootings, explosions in Odessa, my hometown. Mentally it’s exhausting,” Svitolina said. “I can’t even imagine what people are going through in Ukraine, what my family is going through.”
Although Ukraine resists a better-armed Russian army, millions of Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country.
Svitolina, 27, married to French tennis player Gael Monfils, will miss the French Open, where she reached the quarter-finals three times. She did not say if she would play at Wimbledon, where she reached the semi-finals in 2019.
But given what Ukraine is going through, tennis is not his focus.
“I have a lot on my plate right now,” she said. “I have my foundation, I try to do my best for people in need. It’s the priority, the foundation and my family.”
Helping displaced Ukrainian children
His foundation helps Ukrainian children who have fled.
“We do our best to raise funds for Ukrainian children. I want to keep their dream alive, even though they have been through horrible times,” Svitolina said. “Some children have been lucky enough to escape. At the moment we have children who are placed in academies in Europe. We pay for their training, their food, their accommodation.”
Svitolina met some of them in France.
“I wish I could meet everyone,” she said. “I will do my best to give attention to each child and give them that little extra motivation they need these days.”
But Svitolina also suffers mentally and finds ways not to be overwhelmed by the war.
“I take my time during the day to just turn off my phone. It really helps me be calmer,” said Svitolina, who sees a psychologist.
“We talk a lot, discover something every time we talk, find ways,” Svitolina said. “For [the psychologist] it was also hard for her to see me with such sadness.”
“Neglected” mental health
Svitolina was among several speakers discussing mental health in sport at a conference in Paris on Wednesday.
“I totally agree that mental health is something that has been overlooked. A lot of issues go through athletes, a lot of tough times with injuries, with performances, with media pressure,” he said. she declared. “It’s important to talk about it, to talk about your own story. I feel like it wasn’t [done] soon enough.”
High-profile figures like tennis player Naomi Osaka and Formula 1 manager Toto Wolff of the Mercedes team have spoken openly about mental health.
“It’s very good that it’s becoming more open right now. I think it’s very important for some people to hear it out loud, like Naomi Osaka did,” Svitolina said. “Some people want to share their stories. I prefer to talk with my psychologist, with my family. There’s no right or wrong way. You have to find the way that works for you.”