World No.5 Elina Svitolina has turned to a mental coach to help her balance the pressures and unpredictability of being an elite professional athlete during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"During the difficult time right now, I think mentally it's very important to stay strong, to stay fresh," Svitolina told reporters ahead of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, where she is the No.2 seed.
"With all the tournaments that are going to happen right now - and pretty much all of them are very important and very big - you have a different kind of pressure. Also, playing without the people, the fans, it's a different atmosphere.
"So after playing a few tournaments at the end of the last season, I was thinking to take the mental coach. I think this is the right decision for me right now. There are lots of things that are happening. We have Olympics this year. So it's very important to stay focused and to be ready for anything that comes my way."
While life during the pandemic may have accelerated the process, Svitolina has spoken openly about her quest for that mental edge. The Ukrainian has already tallied 15 titles before her 27th birthday, including the biggest title of her career at the 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore. Since making her Top 10 debut in 2017, Svitolina has never left, a credit to her competitive instincts and physical consistency. In fact, she has won 12 titles since the start of 2017, more than any player over that span.
Where the 26-year-old has sought to make inroads is at the Slams. Her two Slam semifinal appearances came in 2019 at Wimbledon and the US Open, and she added a third Roland Garros quarterfinal last season. With an opportunity to make her first Roland Garros semifinal, Svitolina bowed out 6-2, 6-4 to Nadia Podoroska. After giving credit to the Argentinian's efficiency and focus, Svitolina made clear she was disappointed in how she handled the difficult conditions and high-stakes opportunity.
"I think it was just one of those days when you are really hard on yourself, when you're really picking on all the bad stuff and the negative stuff," Svitolina said after the loss. "I think it's important to try to find something positive. I have been in this situation many times, but today unfortunately I was thinking of, like, so many stuff was going on, you know, with the wind and everything, and this really let my focus down."
It took time for Svitolina to find a mental coach who suited her. The alchemy that leads to a fruitful relationship can't be laid out on a resume or guaranteed by word of mouth. Finding someone you can trust takes time.
"It takes lots of courage, first of all, to open up, and second, to find the right person because sometimes it's not the matter of being a good mental coach," Svitolina said. "It's a matter of finding the good relationship. It's the same as finding the right husband, or a tennis coach, or the right friend. You can look for a long time or you can find someone really quick and you can be very lucky with that. So I tried a couple of them, a couple of people that I was suggested by my agent, by my friends, but unfortunately, it didn't work for me."
"The lady with whom I'm working right now, we found a good connection. She's really not too picky on how I feel and somehow I open up really easy with her and we share a lot. We try to find the right way for me to make me feel good and just make me feel stronger mentally."
Asked whether the focus of her mental work was to improve her sporting performance or more for holistic balance and wellness, Svitolina said the two were one and the same.
"It's about everything in my life in general, because as we can see - and I think this last season shows really good - that the life doesn't end only on the court. You have lots of stuff going on around you. You have the private life as well, you have family, all these kinds of pressures from outside.
"Trying to be in a good mindset for the match is everything around you. So it's important to have the right people around you, to not get too down and not too high with the mental state. It's all the small things that are happening.
"So for me, it's important to share everything. The lady with whom I'm working with, she knows pretty much everything, all the small and dark secrets about my life. When I started to work with her it really released a lot of moments that I thought I wouldn't share with anyone because maybe it was not good to share it with friends or someone.
"But with her, she really opened up and pushed the right buttons. I'm feeling good and more relaxed on and off the court."
Mental health and sports psychology has been a growing trend on the WTA Tour in recent years. Not only have players turned to more frequently to mental coaches to gain an edge, but just as importantly, they have also spoken about it more openly.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Svitolina reached out to reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek to be her designated practice partner during Week 1 of the players' mandatory 14-day quarantine. En route to her scintillating run to the title in Paris last fall, the 19-year-old spent nearly every press conference discussing the importance of her work with her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz.
"I think straight away after the meeting when we found out that we'll have to choose one player, straight away we thought about Iga," Svitolina said. "We practiced a couple of times with her and really enjoyed hitting with each other. So straight away they answered, 'Let's do it'."
"I think it's a good hitting partner for me and hopefully she's happy as well, because I think we're hitting lots of balls back and that's what you want for the good preparation."
Svitolina opens her Abu Dhabi campaign against Jessica Pegula in the first round.
Main Draw play begins on Wednesday, January 6th. For all the live scores from the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, click here.