By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Saturday June 3, 2023
It has been a banner week one for Ukrainian tennis with both Lesia Tsurenko and Elina Svitolina passing through to the round of 16. With all the hardship happening in Ukraine with regard to 15 months of a brutal invasion by Russian forces, tennis may seem a small and insignificant distraction from what is really important, but when we listen to the words to the two Ukrainian women still alive in the draw in Paris, we can see how important their success is for the countries’ morale – and for the war effort.
At 34, former World No.23 Tsurenko has entertained thoughts of retirement, but expressed on Saturday in Paris that her decision to remain active on tour is as much as a decision for herself as it is to do something for the people back home.
She will face top-seeded Iga Swiatek in the round of 16.
“It was actually a big decision for me to stay in tennis,” Tsurenko said after easing past Bianca Andreescu in third-round action. “I think what really helped me is that I increased my work with a psychologist. I increased a lot because I had panic attacks, and I had a really tough time.
“So for me it was a learning process how to continue playing in these conditions and how to try to go on court and with some bigger goals. Not just play tennis, but I will be honest. I want to earn as much as I can to donate as much as I can. This is actually a bigger thing that I have in my mind when I decided that I will continue playing and I will be on tour.”
Impressive that Tsurenko, who dealt with a serious elbow injury last season and finished at 130 in year in the 2022 year-end rankings, has halved her ranking in five months. She’s not doing it for the money, she’s doing it for Ukraine.
Tsurenko relayed that a conversation with former ATP player Alex Dolgopolov, who is currently a soldier in Ukraine, helped her see the way forward.
“I never played for money,” she said. “A year ago it was a point where I was thinking, okay, or I go back home and I will be a volunteer and do whatever is necessary for my country.
But, actually, I have to say that I had a conversation with Alex Dolgopolov which really helped me. He told me, ‘Look, we will do our job here, and you continue your job, and you continue what you can do the best.’ He told me that, You know, we need money.
“So I continue playing. I want to improve myself. I want to improve my game, and I will donate. This is what I’m doing a lot, and I feel better when I do that because I still feel quite guilty that I’m not in Ukraine. I’m doing something really — you know, sport is definitely something great to do.”
During a painful, emotional period, Tsurenko says it helps to know what she is playing for. It can help her fight through the tough patches.
“Often when I have tough moments in my match, I also remind myself that I’m from Ukraine, that I’m Ukrainian, and I’m a part of the strongest nation, and I have to be proud, and I am proud that I’m Ukrainian.”
Svitolina an Inspiration
Former World No.3 Elina Svitolina joins Tsurenko in the second week after coming through three three-setters this week in Paris. The 28-year-old Odessa native entered the draw fresh off winning the Strasbourg title and knocked off last year’s semifinalist Martina Trevisan in the opening round.
She will face Daria Kasastkina for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Svitolina, who gave birth to baby Skaï Monfils on October 15th, has since defeated Storm Sanders and Anna Blinkova in three sets.
After her third-round win she explained why it is so important for Ukrainian players to not shake hands with Russians. Her answer gives insight into the all-encompassing nature of the war.
“We are Ukrainians, we all unite for one goal, for the goal of winning this war, and we do everything what is on regarding this topic, you know,” she said. “I’m Ukrainian. I’m standing for my country. I’m doing everything possible in the way to support, to give a good spirit for the men, for the women who are right now in the front line who are fighting for our land, for our country.” Shaking hands with Russians would be akin to “doing nothing” about the way.
“So can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now in a front line, you know, looking at me and I’m, like, acting like nothing is happening,” Svitolina said. “I’m representing my country. I have a voice. I’m standing with Ukraine. I’m standing, I have my position in this war. What is Russian government or Russian soldiers are doing on our land is really, really terrible.”
Tsurenko looks up to Svitolina, who is the highest-ranked tennis player in Ukraine’s history and a warrior in the truest sense of the word.
“Elina is such an inspiration,” she said. “In general, the way she was playing before pregnancy, it was unbelievable. And the main thing is that she’s a great fighter, so it was always for me, I watch her matches to take a little bit of that energy and to learn something.
“And, of course, we keep in touch. We support each other. Definitely it’s great to have someone like her, a great champion in tennis, in Ukrainian tennis history.”
Photo Source: Getty Images