PARIS (AP) — Ukrainian tennis player Elena Svitolina wants Russian and Belarusian players to say whether they oppose a war in her country.
“For us, for the Ukrainians, it’s very important that they speak up, which side they choose to be on. We want to know, we want to feel safe about it. Because if they don’t have an opinion on it, we don’t know Do they support their government, do they support the military’s actions,” Svitolina told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Because in Russia and Belarus, sports are big publicity.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Svitolina also spoke about mental health and feeling overwhelmed by the pain of war.
Nervousness led the former third-ranked Ukrainian to decide to suspend tennis. Stress also exacerbates ongoing back problems, she said.
“For me, the months of carrying everything on my shoulders were really tough mentally. That’s why taking the time to really settle down was a better decision,” she said. “To be at the top of the game, you have to be 100 percent mentally and physically fit. For me, that’s not the case.”
Players from Russia and Belarus are banned from the Wimbledon tournament, which starts on June 27, because of the war. The French Open, which starts on May 22, allows them to play as neutral players. For Svitolina, it was more about breaking the silence.
“I think it’s very important that they need to take their stand. Whether it’s a major or (another) tournament,” she said. “I think every Russian and Belarusian athlete should take a stand so we know there are no bad guys among us.”
Svitolina was asked if any Russian and Belarusian players had personally told her they were against the war.
“Very few. It’s very sad because so many athletes from different countries came to us to show their support,” Svitolina said. “That’s why it really hurts us, we don’t understand why they (Russian and Belarusian players) didn’t do it.”
The war is now in its 11th week. Kyiv fell to the enemy, but Russia battered the port of Odessa.
“In the past few days, there have been shootings and bombings in my hometown of Odessa. Mentally it is draining,” Svitolina said. “I can’t even imagine what people are going through in Ukraine, what my family is going through.”
Millions of Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country even as Ukraine is resisting a better-equipped Russian army.
“The first week was the hardest week of my life,” Svitolina said. “I’m very worried about everyone in Ukraine, about my family, about what’s going to happen next. There’s some new information every minute.”
Svitolina, 27, who is married to French tennis player Gael Monfils, will miss the French Open and has reached the quarter-finals three times. She did not say whether she would play at Wimbledon, where she reached the semifinals in 2019.
But given what Ukraine is going through, tennis isn’t her focus.
“I have a lot to do right now,” she said. “I have my foundation and I will do whatever I can to do something for those in need. That’s the priority, the foundation and my family.”
Her foundation is helping fleeing Ukrainian children.
“We are doing our best to raise money for Ukrainian children. I want to keep their dreams alive, even though they go through terrible times,” Svitolina said. “There are children who have a chance to escape. Now we have children who are placed in academies in Europe. We pay for their training, food and accommodation.”
Svitolina met some of them in France.
“I wish I could meet everyone,” she said. “I’m going to do my best to pay attention to each child and give them the little extra motivation they need these days.”
But Svitolina also suffered mentally and managed to not be overwhelmed by the war.
“I spend time during the day turning off my phone. It really makes me calmer,” says Svitolina, a counseling psychologist.
“We talked a lot, and every time we talked, we found something, we found a way,” Svitolina said. “For (the psychologist), it’s also hard for her to see me so sad.”
Svitolina was one of several speakers to discuss mental health in sports at a conference in Paris on Wednesday.
“I totally agree that mental health is something that’s been overlooked. Athletes are going through a lot of trouble, there’s a lot of tough moments, including injuries, performance, and pressure from the media,” she said. “It’s important to talk about it, to talk about your own story. I don’t think it’s been enough before (done).”
Leading figures such as tennis player Naomi Osaka and Mercedes’ Formula 1 executive Toto Wolff have spoken out about mental health.
“It’s good, it’s become more open now. I think it’s very important for some people to hear it out loud, as 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 need to find what works for you.”
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