Elina Svitolina didn’t expect to be back in the third round at the French Open.
Not yet anyway.
When the 28-year-old first returned to the practice court in January, after giving birth to her daughter, Skai, in October, she knew it would take time to get back to her former level. She patiently plotted out her competitive schedule accordingly, with her first tournament on the green clay at Charleston in April and then two ITF events. Her focus was merely on getting match experience again and earning ranking points after a 13-month absence from tour.
But, just two months after making her return, the former world No. 3 won the title at last week’s Internationaux de Strasbourg — and is now into the round of 32 at the French Open behind a dominant opening victory over 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan and a 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 comeback win over Storm Hunter on Wednesday.
Ranked outside of the top 1,000 entering the month of May, Svitolina started the tournament at No. 192 and is now in the top 135 in the live rankings. She will next face Anna Blinkova, who upset No. 5 seed Caroline Garcia in the second round, on Friday.
“It’s extremely special,” Svitolina said on court after her second-round match. “To get a chance to play Roland Garros and [get] past two rounds, it’s already amazing for me. In January, I didn’t even think I would be at this stage, fit and playing great tennis against great players. So yeah, it’s [an] extremely special moment for me.”
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 31, 2023
Svitolina is a three-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, playing in the main draw at the event for the 10th time in her career, but this time around everything is different.
She and her husband Gael Monfils have been playing in the same tournament for the first time since becoming parents, so they are staying together with Skai and what Svitolina called a “team” to help with childcare. Like Svitolina, Monfils was also looking for his first major victory of the year — and he did it Tuesday night in a five-set thriller against Sebastian Baez in front of an elated crowd in France.
Svitolina watched every minute from her hotel room and said she was screaming and cheering throughout. Less than 12 hours later, Monfils was seated courtside for Svitolina’s match against Hunter. (On Wednesday evening, Monfils announced he would be withdrawing ahead of his second-round match because of a wrist injury.)
“It gave me actually motivation to go again today,” Svitolina told reporters. “He was there for me today. [He] made such a big effort to come and support me, especially in a tough day like today. So really it motivated me to fight and not give up and play every point, try to put 100 percent effort out there.”
Svitolina was down a set and a break before she rallied back to force a decider. Hunter won just one game in the 26-minute final set and looked powerless against the resurgent Svitolina. She shook her fists in celebration when it was over, before blowing kisses to the crowd.
Svitolina, who is from Ukraine, has been outspoken about the ongoing Russian invasion of her native country, a place where many of her family members and friends still live. She said the win wasn’t just for her. It represented far more.
“For me when I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” Svitolina said after the match. “… Each time I step on the court I’m going to go 100 percent out and give everything because I’m here to do something for my country.”
Svitolina has been active in raising awareness and funds for humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began last year. She has also criticized many of her peers, as well as tennis’ organizing bodies and the media, for not taking strong enough actions to show their support. Earlier this week, and again Wednesday, Svitolina called such actions “empty words” that are “not helping.” She has called for Wimbledon to continue its ban on Russian and Belarusian players, and like many of her fellow Ukrainians on tour, she will not shake hands with opponents from either country after matches.
“You know, these kind of moments, these little wins, on a very low level, these moments bring joy to [the] people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” Svitolina said after her first-round victory. “But these moments can motivate them to look on the bright side and, you know, see these good moments and enjoy [themselves] as much as they can in this horrible situation.”
Elina Svitolina’s unexpected success at the French Open