Russian, Belarusian players need to talk about war

PARIS – Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina wants Russian and Belarusian players to say if they are against the war in their country.

“For us, for the Ukrainians, it is very important that they speak up, that they choose which side they are on. We want to know, we want to feel safe. Because if they don’t say what they think about it, we don’t know if they support their government, if they support the army’s action,” Svitolina told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Because in Russia and Belarus, sport is a big propaganda.”

In an interview with the AP, Svitolina also spoke about mental health and feeling overwhelmed by the fear of war.

Mental stress caused the former third-placed player from Ukraine to take a break from tennis. She said the stress also exacerbated ongoing back problems.

“It’s been a really tough couple of months for me mentally, keeping everything on my shoulders. So it was a better decision to take time to really calm down,” she said. “To be at the top, you have to be 100% mentally and physically fit. That wasn’t the case for me.”


The Wimbledon tournament, which starts on June 27, has excluded players from Russia and Belarus because of the war. They can compete as neutral players at the French Open, which starts on May 22nd. For Svitolina, it’s more about breaking the silence.

“I feel they have to speak out on their position, it’s very important. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Grand Slam or a (different) tournament,” she said. “I think every Russian and Belarusian athlete should take their position, so we know that there are no bad people among us.”

Svitolina was asked if any Russian and Belarusian players personally told her they were against the war.

“Very little. It’s very sad because many athletes from different countries approached us and showed us their support,” Svitolina said. “That’s why it really hurts us and we don’t understand why exactly they (Russian and Belarusian players ) didn’t do it.”

The war is now in its 11th week. Kyiv has bogged down enemy troops, but Russia has stormed the port of Odessa.


“In the last few days there have been shootings and explosions in Odessa, my hometown. Mentally it’s exhausting,” said Svitolina. “I can’t even imagine what the people of Ukraine are going through, what my family is going through.”

Despite Ukraine’s resistance to a better-armed Russian military, millions of Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country.

“The first week was the hardest week of my life,” said Svitolina. “I was so worried for all the people of Ukraine, for my family, what’s coming next. There was new information every minute.”

Svitolina, 27, who is married to French tennis player Gael Monfils, will miss the French Open, where she reached the quarterfinals three times. She did not say if she will play at Wimbledon, where she reached the semifinals in 2019.

But given what Ukraine is going through, tennis is not their focus.

“I have a lot of things on my plate right now,” she said. “I have my foundation, I try to do as much as possible for people in need. That is the priority, the foundation and my family.”


Her foundation helps refugee Ukrainian children.

“We are doing our best to raise funds for Ukrainian children. I want to keep their dream alive even though they’ve been through terrible times,” Svitolina said. “Some children had a chance to escape. At the moment we have children who are being placed in the academies in Europe. We pay for their education, for their food, for their housing.”

Svitolina met with some of them in France.

“I wish I could meet everyone,” she said. “I’ll do my best to pay attention to each and every child and give them that little extra motivation they need these days.”

But Svitolina also suffers mentally and finds ways not to let the war overwhelm her.

“I take time out during the day to just turn off my phone. It really helps me calm down,” said Svitolina, who is consulting a psychologist.

“We talk a lot, discover something every time we talk, find ways,” Svitolina said. “It was also hard for[the psychologist]to see me with so much sadness.”


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 difficult athletes go through, a lot of difficult moments with injuries, with performance, with pressure from the media,” she said. “It’s important to talk about it, to talk about your own story. I have a feeling this hasn’t been done ) Enough before that.”

Leading figures such as 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 now. I think it’s very important that some people hear it out loud like Naomi Osaka did,” Svitolina said. “Some people want to share their stories. I prefer to talk to my psychologist, to my family. There is no wrong or right way. You must find the path that is comfortable for you.”



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Nate Jones

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