ROME -- Amid personal joy and national sorrow, Elina Svitolina embarks on a mission fueled by newfound purpose. The birth of her daughter Skaï in October brought new life, a "magical moment" she cherishes. But this came against the backdrop of death and destruction in her country, which continues to suffer under the ongoing Russian invasion.
Now the 28-year-old Svitolina is back on tour, and on what she describes as "a mission." Her comeback isn't just about tennis. Becoming a mother has underlined the necessity of trying to make the world a better place, and that's Svitolina's driving force these days.
"In every possible way, I want to make sure Ukraine is still in the news," she said ahead of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, where the two-time former champion fell to compatriot Lesia Tsurenko 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. "Playing tournaments, trying to organize events on the side, connecting with people around the events -- that's really important. The war continues, so we need to continue helping people."
When Svitolina is asked what she's learned most about herself over the past 15 months, the Ukrainian's answer encompasses the scope of everything she's experienced.
"We have to cherish our bodies," she said. "In our bodies, we are capable of impossible things. All these moments together that we have, we have to cherish them -- because you never know what's going to come next."
While on maternity leave, Svitolina threw herself into fundraising for Ukraine. She spent "many hours" learning the ropes of the business and applying what she had learned from a high-level sports career to a high-level political sphere. She leveraged every connection she and her team had and traveled tirelessly from one event to another to firm up support from the worlds of sports, politics, business and royalty.
Last December, the third edition of the Elina Svitolina Foundation's charity gala was held in Monaco under the patronage of Prince Albert II. In January, she appeared at Ukraine House Davos alongside Mykhailo Fedorov, the vice president of Ukraine, and Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber.
The most important thing her profession has taught her?
"Constant adjustment," Svitolina said. "It can be windy, it can be rainy, you might be waiting for six or seven hours. But you have to be ready for anything that comes your way."
This is not just a tennis tutorial, but a lesson in life.
But this is demanding work. Even her husband, Gaël Monfils, whose support Svitolina says was invaluable during this period, advised her to "slow down" at one point. But her pregnancy was going smoothly and, in any case, fundraising took her mind off it.
She's raised over €1m between the Elina Svitolina Foundation and United24, the platform set up by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy for which she acts as an ambassador. The money has gone to projects such as the reconstruction of burned-out houses in Irpin, where over 1,000 buildings were destroyed in the Russian attack on the city.
In February, Svitolina was further bolstered by receiving a commemorative award from Zelenskiy for her efforts.
"It was a great moment for me," she said. "It was a great sign for my motivation, that I'm doing something good for my country and my people. It motivated me even more to do what I'm doing and to try to do even more. It was great to speak to him and to understand his view and how he sees. He goes to the frontline and sees what is really happening, so to meet him and speak to him was an unbelievable experience."
Svitolina's political awareness predates the invasion of her country. She has always wanted to better understand how the system works.
"It's a whole different world," she said. "It's something you have to educate yourself on because it keeps changing. You need to understand what's really happening in your country and the world."
Accordingly, the idea that sports and politics are separate is not one Svitolina agrees with -- and even less so now.
Svitolina herself encapsulates how mixing politics and sport can be positive. Her comeback, which took her to the Saint-Malo WTA 125 semifinals last week, isn't just about a former Top 3 player testing herself following time away. Svitolina is using tennis as a vehicle to fight for something greater than herself -- for the survival of her country, the sustenance of her people -- and for the world her daughter will grow up in.