Special report: Ukraine is emerging as a tennis powerhouse. Behind WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina, a stream of young talent is rising up the WTA rankings, from Dayana Yastremska to Daria Lopatetska. Alex Macpherson traveled to Kyiv to discover the reasons behind the upswing.
Alex Macpherson
April 17, 2019

KYIV, Ukraine - These days, almost every glance at the latest faces emerging on to the WTA Tour and the ITF junior circuit reveals a new Ukrainian name.

Over the past two years, Elina Svitolina has taken the country's tennis to new heights as a firm fixture in the Top 10, capturing her biggest trophy to date at the WTA Finals last year, while Lesia Tsurenko and Kateryna Kozlova have also established themselves as Top 100 stalwarts. But there is a host of prodigious young talents snapping at their heels: 18-year-old Dayana Yastremska, already a two-time WTA titlist in Hong Kong last year and Hua Hin this February; 16-year-old Marta Kostyuk, who made the third round of the Australian Open on her debut last year; 15-year-old Daria Lopatetska, who has compiled a 40-7 record on the ITF World Tour, including five titles, and risen to World No.251 since her first appearance last June.

Read more: Superb Svitolina bests Stephens to win 2018 WTA Finals

The conveyor belt doesn't end there: 22-year-old Anhelina Kalinina turned heads by pushing Sloane Stephens to the brink of defeat at the US Open, 19-year-old Katarina Zavatska reached her maiden WTA quarterfinal in Rabat last year, 17-year-old Daria Snigur has won four ITF World Tour titles in the past six months, including her first W25 in Kashiwa this month, and 16-year-old Lyubov Kostenko is a Top 50 junior prospect who reached the final of her only ITF World Tour outing so far in Chornomorsk last October.

Dayana Yastremska - Hong Kong 2018 - Getty
Dayana Yastremska celebrates her maiden title in Hong Kong last October with a selfie (Getty)

Any one or two of these players would be noteworthy, but the sheer number of emergent young Ukrainians is simply astonishing - particularly given that the past two decades have been characterized by political and economic upheaval at home in the form of multiple revolutions and an ongoing military conflict with Russia.

In order to find out the reasons for this tennis surge, I traveled to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, to talk to Evgeniy Zukin, the secretary of the Ukrainian Tennis Federation, as well as Svitolina's former manager Vsevolod Kevlych and former WTA World No.79 Olga Savchuk, now the brand-new manager of the country's Fed Cup team - and found out that the story is as much one of history and long-term growth as contemporary changes.

'You cannot forget that the country is only 25 years old, but tennis traditions are more than 100 years old here.'
Evgeniy Zukin, Secretary, Ukrainian Tennis Federation

"It's not like something happens and you get the result - it's a process," emphasizes Zukin. "We cannot just take two years and have players. It's dozens of years. The Ukrainian federation and the country is 25 years old; during Soviet times not many players traveled. And then the doors opened, and there was a decade of turning things around."

Read more: Yastremska outlasts Tomljanovic to win second career title in Hua Hin

Savchuk, who was three years old when the USSR collapsed, grew up hearing about the lack of opportunity: "I heard from my coaches who played for the USSR, they said it was amazingly difficult to go outside and even when you did go outside you felt like you were watched and you didn't have freedom," she says.

But despite tennis as a profession being historically closed off, it has always enjoyed popularity as a pastime in Ukraine.

Marta Kostyuk - Fed Cup 2019 - Getty
Marta Kostyuk in Fed Cup action in February 2019 in Zielona Gora, Poland (Getty)

Kevlych, who trained with former Roland Garros finalist Andrei Medvedev in Kyiv during the 1970s, says that Ukraine was "a tennis republic within the Soviet Union". The Kyiv school, he remembers, was "maybe the best school in the Soviet Union because we had a good climate, nice cities with tennis courts and good people who were passionate about the sport."

Zukin, meanwhile, points out that "you cannot forget that the country is only 25 years old, but tennis traditions are more than 100 years old here".

When the borders opened up, Kevlych attended his first international officiating school in Poland in 1995 - and admits that the gulf in professionalism was a "shock". Nonetheless, the reception as Ukraine began to host tournaments, even at the lowest levels, was indicative of the country's love of the sport. An ITF $10,000 event in 1993 drew large crowds - "for us it was like a Grand Slam," chuckles Kevlych wryly - and Ukraine's debut as a Davis Cup host against Norway in 1996 pulled in daily stands of 3,000 people despite not featuring a Top 50 player.

'We created the team around Svitolina - she had a personal coach, a personal physio, a personal fitness coach, courts, swimming pool, she had everything she needed to reach everything in her junior career and in professionals after that.'
Vsevolod Kevlych, former manager of Elina Svitolina

Over the next two decades, a succession of relatively successful pros emerged: Zukin lists the Bondarenko sisters, who reached the Top 30, as well as former Top 100 players Tatiana Perebiynis, Mariya Koryttseva, Viktoriya Kutuzova and Yuliana Fedak. Still, as Kevlych - who worked with the Ukrainian Fed Cup team between 2007-10 - found out, a lack of experience kept the team below the World Group level.

"Everybody decided that they knew everything, but a lot of our specialists and coaches knew nothing," he says bluntly. "The people in charge of the team were not really interested in the development of tennis for producing good players."

A proper system was needed - and, in collaboration with business owner Yuriy Sapronov, Kevlych embarked on just such a project: a 13-year-old talent named Elina Svitolina.

"Sapronov made the standard that we have to do everything of the top level, and to spend as much money as necessary," says Kevlych.

"We created the team around Svitolina - she had a personal coach, a personal physio, a personal fitness coach, courts, swimming pool, she had everything she needed to reach everything in her junior career and in professionals after that."

Elina Svitolina - Roland Garros 2010 - Getty
2010 Roland Garros girls' champion Elina Svitolina (Getty)

This was a boost not just for Svitolina's game, but her mentality. Previous Ukrainian juniors, even with sponsors behind them, had traveled with financial uncertainty. "But when [Svitolina] traveled around the world, she knew that everything she needed, she would receive - and probably that was the psychological moment for her to win Roland Garros juniors in 2010," recalls Kevlych.

Spending as much money as necessary is a nice idea, of course - but it's not an option for the Ukrainian Tennis Federation itself, whose budget is around $700-800,000 per year. Instead, its primary role over the years has been to connect promising players to the business community and various private sponsors who do have the money.

"Sport in our country is organised absolutely differently to Western European countries," says Zukin. "As a federation we do not have a big budget, so our goal is to attach talented players to the people who have money and can help them to get through."

Read more: Scouting report: Young gun Daria Lopatetska off and running in 2019

It's not as simple as merely making introductions, though. Kevlych describes "the problem of trust - you have to have someone to believe in" - which is where he comes in as a scout at junior tournaments. His latest project is Kostenko, whom he first encountered at an U12 tournament in 2015 - one he had originally attended in order to see Lopatetska, whom he had pinned from the age of eight as "completely a tennis person". But "Kostenko was quite rare among the girls," recalls Kevlych. "She was aggressive in her sharp endings. She was very decisive and quite right in her decisions." Two years later, in the winter of 2017, Sapronov decided to invest in Kostenko and a contract was signed.

There has also been a key change of personnel this decade. From 2006, Vadim Shulman was president of the federation; under him, says Kevlych, investment and funding increased - until Shulman lost interest in tennis five years later when the singles careers of his protégées, twin sisters Lyudmyla and Nadiia Kichenok, stalled. 2013 saw the election of businessman Sergiy Lagur to the presidency, with Zukin accompanying him.

"Our plan was to change the communication between the federation and everybody who is involved," says Zukin. "To be more like a union and to be open to give a helping hand to everybody who really needs it."

Savchuk, who played her first pro tournament in 2002 and retired after last year's US Open, has seen various regimes come and go - but can attest to Zukin and Lagur's success.

"It's changed big time," she tells me over brunch in London, where she lives now. "If they feel a player is good, or can be potentially good, they try to help. And - it wasn't like this in my days - you can ask for help, and maybe they can't help with the bigger picture but they will try to do something. They became more open and more approachable."

Read more: Ukrainian double threat Olga Savchuk ends career at US Open

In her younger years, Savchuk's contact with her national federation was minimal; instead, she would make her own training plans on an ad hoc basis, from off-season work in Alan Ma's Guangzhou academy on the recommendation of Zarina Diyas to basing herself in Paris simply because she loved the city. Now, she finds herself imparting the wisdom of these experiences to the federation.

"They're interested in professional sports now - in my days they were more interested in making money out of tennis," she says.

Daria Lopatetska - US Open 2018 - Getty
Daria Lopatetska en route to victory over Cori Gauff in the 2018 US Open junior competition (Getty)

But the source of the actual pool of talent can be found where all of this began: in the country's tennis tradition, which existed as part of the Soviet Union and continued post-independence and through every upheaval since. At the turn of the century, it began to manifest itself in amateur leagues: one of the country's largest banks, PrivatBank, set up tournaments for its workers and invited other companies to compete - from there, it snowballed. 

"We have a huge amateur tennis movement in Ukraine - let's say the best amateur players," declares Zukin. "Better than Russians, better than anywhere. We have a few national amateur leagues and people travel as professionals from town to town for tournaments. They get mad about tennis and they have fans. This is really important because they want their kids to be tennis players.

"This is community. It was professional from the very beginning - they asked for professional referees, it was managed like a pro tour. [Lagur] is also the head of this amateur league - it's a gathering of businessmen, of celebrities, of people who love tennis. It's a lifestyle."

'We have a huge amateur tennis movement in Ukraine... This is community. It's a lifestyle.'
Evgeniy Zukin

Some involved in this close-knit community end up being investors in players; others build courts in their home towns. And the majority of young talent comes from what Zukin calls "dynasties" - families that revolve around tennis through the generations, often picking up the baton from parents who were restricted in Soviet times.

"The Bondarenkos, the mother is a coach. [Andrei] Medvedev and [Natalia] Medvedeva, mother is a coach, father is a coach. Kostyuk, mother is a coach, uncle is a coach. Zavatska, parents were not coaches, but they played the amateur leagues. Lopatetska is the one who doesn't have a tennis family, but they've been ready to give her into an experienced coach's hands and not to interfere."

Curiously, the majority of potentially world-class players coming through the pipeline are girls.

"In Ukraine, we are a matriarchal country," says Zukin. "The women are really strong and the men are not as strong as we would like."

Regardless, this is the kind of thriving grassroots scene that other, richer federations spend a fortune on trying to create - and it's made for a generation of young players with hunger and ambition. Savchuk, who made her debut as Fed Cup manager in February during Ukraine's zonal ties in Zielona Gora, Poland, got to see it up close - and the seasoned campaigner was astonished.

"Kostyuk, she's super mature for her age," says Savchuk. "Her game is very different - she can slide, she can run, she can come in, she has really good hands. Lopatetska is a really tall, really strong girl, very powerful - but at the same time not just hitting without any thought in her head, she's using the court well. Yastremska? I can tell you I never in my life saw somebody as professional on the court, to be honest. I even asked her afterwards how she does it. If she misses a ball she never, ever reacts. She's very focused and very organised on the court - which is amazing, because outside the court she's very easy-going and very emotional."

Savchuk laughs as she recalls the intra-team competition to be picked for singles rubbers.

"They would actually get sad if they were not playing!" she recalled. "There were a few days when Kostyuk wasn't picked, and she was almost crying because she wasn't playing. All the team had to explain to her that she was gonna be tired, she'd played four matches in two days and we needed her for the last one. Yastremska as well - she was like, 'I'm going to go in singles and doubles - and tomorrow, singles and doubles!' I was like, come on, we have to spread the load. But it's great, it's never been like this. They're really motivated and they feel so confident about themselves, which is amazing for tennis. It's just nice to see, and a bit shocking.

Read more: Insider Q&A: How Marta Kostyuk keeps an even keel

"Myself, I'm really interested, and sometimes I'm just asking them how they think and what changed them from being a kid to suddenly being so mature. They're like, I just decided I wanted to be the best. And this is coming from an 18-year-old girl."

'Sometimes I'm just asking them how they think and what changed them from being a kid to suddenly being so mature. They're like, I just decided I wanted to be the best.'
Olga Savchuk, Ukraine Fed Cup manager

As is so often the case when multiple elite talents come along in one generation, the Ukrainian cohort has developed a healthy rivalry with each other.

"They all want to be better than each other, so that's how they get better and better," says Savchuk. "They also feel they're not the youngest now - it creates a virtuous cycle. If you're the only good junior you might relax but they also feel that Lopatetska, Kostenko are coming. All of them push each other to the limits."

The team ended up having a disappointing result in February, pipped to the promotional play-off by Sweden and consigned to another year in Euro-Africa Group I. But with youth and depth unrivalled by almost every other country in the world, it's impossible to see Ukraine languishing there for long.

GALLERY: Vive la difference! 18 titles, 18 winners in 2019 so far

The Ukrainian project is far from over: though the infrastructure at home has improved to the point where Savchuk, who also coaches the Kichenok twins in doubles, does not feel "pushed out" - as she was in her playing days - when it comes to finding places to train, Zukin says a necessary next step is a national centre. This, he says, will help prevent players from leaving the country - as Svitolina has done - when they reach the top level, and will also keep ex-professionals within the community. For that, though, the country has to wait on economic growth.

For the western media, it's often been tempting to frame Eastern European success as borne out of struggle, from stories of Maria Sharapova arriving in the USA virtually penniless to Ana Ivanovic famously training in an empty swimming pool. Savchuk, who recently had the opportunity to train at Britain's National Tennis Centre in London, was astounded by the quality of its facilities - but although she acknowledges that Ukraine's players, with nothing of that level handed to them, have had to push themselves harder, she rejects the idea that it's necessary.

"I don't want our young players to struggle," Savchuk says firmly. Instead, the prevailing answer here seems not to be one of struggle but instead of community - a grassroots base that thrives due to its passion for the sport.