The incredible life story behind Ukraine’s wildcard Elina Svitolina – Maxsports
May 20, 2024

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The incredible life story behind Ukraine’s wildcard Elina Svitolina

She’s the darling of Centre Court whose battling progress to today’s semi-final stage has warmed the hearts of the Wimbledon crowd as she waved the flag for her native war-torn Ukraine.

Elina Svitolina has described as ‘crazy’ how she only gave birth to baby daughter Skai just last October only to return in barely nine months to the peak of athletic fitness – and this afternoon faces Czech player Marketa Vondrousova for a place in the final.

Now MailOnline can reveal the back story of Elina’s journey to fame and popular acclaim, and how it was always underpinned by steely focus and ambition, including how her tennis dream led her to start a new life away from her family when she was aged just 12.

We have traced Elina’s path from humble origins in Ukraine to become the world ranked number three player who has dedicated her success on court to the people of her war ravaged country.

Elina began playing tennis at the age of five in the Ukrainian city of Odesa where she lived with her sporting parents and her older brother Yulian, who is nine years older than her.

Elina Svitolina has won the hearts of Wimbledon as she flew the flag for her native, war-torn Ukraine. Pictured: As she swept to victory against Iga Swiatek in the quarter-final  on Tuesday

Elina Svitolina has won the hearts of Wimbledon as she flew the flag for her native, war-torn Ukraine. Pictured: As she swept to victory against Iga Swiatek in the quarter-final  on Tuesday

Elina began playing tennis at the age of five in the Ukrainian city of Odesa - and wouldn't talk to anyone when she was training

Elina began playing tennis at the age of five in the Ukrainian city of Odesa – and wouldn’t talk to anyone when she was training

The tennis star grew up with her sporting parents and her brother Yulian, who is nine years older than her - and who her parents thought would be a tennis star in his own right

The tennis star grew up with her sporting parents and her brother Yulian, who is nine years older than her – and who her parents thought would be a tennis star in his own right

Elina posed for men's magazine XXL in her native country aged 23, saying she would gladly do it again if they asked her back

Elina posed for men’s magazine XXL in her native country aged 23, saying she would gladly do it again if they asked her back

She later returned to pose for the magazine's calendar, although the publication has since closed down

She later returned to pose for the magazine’s calendar, although the publication has since closed down 

Speaking of her younger days in in an interview in 2013, she said: ‘I liked to play with amateurs for one or two dollars. For me it was a lot of money. I fought for every point, trying my best to win. Then I spent all the money on sweets.’

Her talent was recognised by businessman Yuriy Sapronov when he saw her play at one of his children’s tournaments.

He was so impressed with her that he offered to invest in her training at a tennis club in Kharkiv, around 350 miles from her home city.

Elina’s family decided to move to Kharkiv to pursue her coaching, but her mother could not immediately leave Odesa due to her own career as a professional bowls player.

It meant that Elina had to go alone, spending hours practising on court before returning at night to her empty rented apartment in the eastern Ukrainian city. She carried on her solitary training regime for two months before her mother finally joined her.

Incredibly, she nearly missed out on her high-flying tennis career as a child because she preferred gymnastics.

But she decided to concentrate on tennis to impress her former swimmer mother Elena Svitolina, and her wrestler turned estate agent father Mikhaylo Svitolin.

Recalling her single-minded ambition, she told Elle Ukraine in 2018: ‘I was not only into tennis. There was running, basketball, and gymnastics [in my life].

Elina left the family home aged just 12 to persue tennis, at first living on her own in an apartment. Her parents (pictured with her) encouraged her to strike out and persue her dream

Elina left the family home aged just 12 to persue tennis, at first living on her own in an apartment. Her parents (pictured with her) encouraged her to strike out and persue her dream

Her parents (pictured with Elina) spent a lot of time away from hom trying to kickstart the tennis career of her brother, who now lives and works as a tennis coach in Los Angeles

Her parents (pictured with Elina) spent a lot of time away from hom trying to kickstart the tennis career of her brother, who now lives and works as a tennis coach in Los Angeles

‘I particularly liked gymnastics, it’s a very beautiful sport. Perhaps, at some point I wanted to be in gymnastics more, but it was necessary to choose.

‘Yulian is nine years older than me, he played [tennis] well, and all the attention of his parents was on him.

‘Therefore, I wanted to do something so that my parents would pay attention to me. It has always been very motivating. Yulian had a back injury, he had no choice – he needed to recover. Then my parents turned [their attention] a little more on me.

‘I always wanted to be famous, I wanted to do something to make my parents proud of me. And my parents always motivate me, even now.’

She also told how she was forced to give away her beloved dog to her aunt as a teenager because she spent so much time training and could not look after her pet.

Elina said five-years-ago: ‘I had a dog, I planned that I would carry it everywhere with me. But Papillon is a breed that requires a lot of attention.

‘And when I come back from training, I don’t have so much energy anymore. I had to give the dog away and now it lives with my aunt and uncle and their children. So it’s all good.’

Elina won the hearts of the Wimbledon crowd with her quarter final womens’ singles victory against World number one Iga Swiatek to book her semi-final place against Czech Marketa Vondrousova, who stunned fourth seed Jessica Pegula.

While her parents were away, Elina spent much of her time in Odesa with her Jewish grandmother Tamara - who remained in the city after becoming trapped by the Russian invasion. Pictured: The pair beam together when the star returned to see her grandmother earlier this year

While her parents were away, Elina spent much of her time in Odesa with her Jewish grandmother Tamara – who remained in the city after becoming trapped by the Russian invasion. Pictured: The pair beam together when the star returned to see her grandmother earlier this year

Her grandmother (pictured with her arms around Elina) took her to dance classes, and gymnastics and loyally watched her compete on Ukraine's local amateur tennis circuit

Her grandmother (pictured with her arms around Elina) took her to dance classes, and gymnastics and loyally watched her compete on Ukraine’s local amateur tennis circuit

She talked of her family history in January last year in a two hour interview with prominent Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon.

Elina recalled how she spent much of her time in Odesa with her Jewish grandmother Tamara because her parents were away so much trying to kickstart the tennis career of her brother who now lives and works as a tennis coach in Los Angeles.

Her grandmother took her to dance classes, and gymnastics and loyally watched her compete on Ukraine’s local amateur tennis circuit.

Describing the city of her youth, she said: ‘It was very kind [to me] and very fun because I always went to Yumorina (Odesa’s annual festival of humour) together with my grandma.

‘It was a celebration I was waiting for the whole year. And it was incredibly sweet for me to see that parade and be a part of that. Odesa is my hometown and it will always be that.

‘At first I lived in Uyutnaya Street. I have the best memories about the city. Although my parents travelled a lot with my elder brother when I was little, I stayed with my grandma.

‘My grandma is Jewish, so everything is [centred] around the family, and how to make it comfortable for the family.

Describing her grandmother as ‘a classic Jewish woman from Odesa’, she added: ‘Yes. She has everything… If you want to see an Odesa Jewish granny, you have to meet mine.’

Elina said her family struggled to make ends meet during her younger days before she became a poster girl for Ukrainian sport. Pictured: With her mother as a young child

Elina said her family struggled to make ends meet during her younger days before she became a poster girl for Ukrainian sport. Pictured: With her mother as a young child

Elina says she was driven hard by her parents, and was hardly able to see friends when she was young and in training to be a tennis star. Pictured: Family photo shows Elina with her mother

Elina says she was driven hard by her parents, and was hardly able to see friends when she was young and in training to be a tennis star. Pictured: Family photo shows Elina with her mother

The star recalled how she ended up living alone after moving to persue her tennis dream, as her competative mother (pictured together) had to 'wrap up' her professional bowling career

The star recalled how she ended up living alone after moving to persue her tennis dream, as her competative mother (pictured together) had to ‘wrap up’ her professional bowling career

She added: ‘She is my most dedicated supporter since my very childhood. While my parents were traveling with my brother, I played at some contests for children under ten, under 7, I remember my grandma was watching me.’

The star recalled how she ended up living alone before her teenage years, saying: ‘We reached such a level in our family that we needed to move further.

‘From Odesa either abroad, or find some coach, because I started playing at a certain level. There was a coach from Kharkiv who, as it turned out later, was in a club sponsored by Yuri Sapronov. And it turned out that Yuri was looking for young talents.’

She added: ‘At that time my mum was into professional bowling. My mom is very competitive, and likes achieving.

‘It was important that before we move to Kharkiv… Mum had to wrap it up with professional bowling despite her competing at the national championships.

‘She trained for seven to eight hours a day. For the first couple of months I was in Kharkiv alone. I was in a rented apartment.

‘In the morning I was picked up by the coach. At the end of the day I was brought back to the apartment. And it was very important for me to be back before it got dark. I was a very shy child. Those were my first steps to independent life.’

Elina agreed the regime was hard work, saying: ‘Yes, yes. But I am grateful for that time because I became more independent. At the weekends I was walking around Kharkiv by myself to learn what to show my mum when she visits.’

Describing her life as a 12-year-old living alone, she said: ‘Kharkiv is a very interesting city, totally different from Odesa. People are not as open, that’s what I remember the most. That city fit me a lot, I lived close to a park.’

She also told how she family struggled to make ends meet during her younger days before she became a poster girl for Ukrainian sport.

Elina said: ‘When we moved to Kharkiv, it was a crisis time. My dad was into the real estate business, and it was very hard. And when my mom arrived, we had a budget, not a very big one, which we could spend on food.’

Recalling how her parents shared her ambition, she said: ‘They told me that I should have spent my time on tennis only. It was a big thing, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, I almost didn’t see my friends when I was a teenager.

Elina had time to qualify as a nutritionist after studying in Canada, and has in the past talked about how she eats a healthy diet without any meat or fish.

Elina had time to qualify as a nutritionist after studying in Canada - but said her shoot for XXL magazine gace her confidence

Elina had time to qualify as a nutritionist after studying in Canada – but said her shoot for XXL magazine gace her confidence

Posing for the magazine aged 23 - the same year she win the Internazionali BNL D'Italia in Rome, the Rogers Cup in Canada, the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup in Turkey, the Taiwan Open and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Posing for the magazine aged 23 – the same year she win the Internazionali BNL D’Italia in Rome, the Rogers Cup in Canada, the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup in Turkey, the Taiwan Open and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Elina posed up for a December 2017 issue of XXL - although the men's magazine which has gone defunct

Elina posed up for a December 2017 issue of XXL – although the men’s magazine which has gone defunct

But her dedication to tennis led to her breaking into the ranks of the world’s top 50 players when she was aged 18, the top 20 two years later and the top ten in 2017 after a string of tournament victories.

She went on to reach semi-finals in Wimbledon and the US Open in 2019 and became Ukraine’s first ever Olympic winner at tennis when she scooped a bronze medal at the Tokyo games in 2021.

Aged 23, she also posed semi-naked for Ukrainian men’s magazine XXL.

She returned to them again in 2019 to pose for their calendar, before the magazine shut down.

She told Big Tennis website in Ukraine after the shoot: ‘For me, this is the first such experience.

‘The team turned out to be very professional, which gave me confidence.

‘I felt quite relaxed.

‘If they ask me if I still agree to shoot for magazines in future, then with confidence I will answer ‘yes’.’

Elina admits she is now a wealthy woman after earning an estimated $15 million in prize money in the last four years, although she claims to ‘live very modestly’.

Elina Svitolina stormed to the semi-finals in a run of form that endeared her to the SW19 crowds. Pictured: She celebrates winning a point against Poland's Iga Swiatek during the quarter-finals

Elina Svitolina stormed to the semi-finals in a run of form that endeared her to the SW19 crowds. Pictured: She celebrates winning a point against Poland’s Iga Swiatek during the quarter-finals

Forbes has estimated that she makes over $1 million a year in advertising contracts alone.

But she insists that she invests the bulk of her income in her career, although her wealth has earned her homes in Kyiv, London and Monaco where she lives with her French tennis player husband Gaël Monfils.

She still returns to Ukraine twice year in July and November to visit her grandmother, showering her with gifts of flowers and sweets.

Elina who drives a Mercedes given to her by her husband as a weddng present after they married in Geneva in 2021 is said to spend around $400,000 a year on running her team.

She has a head coach, a fitness trainer, a physiotherapist and a psychologist on her payroll while her father remains her business adviser who helps to manage her range of ‘careful’ investments in real estate, stocks and shares, the energy business and collecting fine wines.

But she insists: ‘I am yet learning to treat myself, because until some time ago I didn’t know how much money I had. I like saving on everything.’

She has also used her success to help promising young tennis players, through her Elina Svitolina Foundation, and has been an ambassador of the United24 fundraising platform since June 2022.

Elina has refused to play in Russia since 2018. She also declines to talk to Russian media.

Elina and her French tennis player husband Gaël Monfils (pictured on holiday) started dating secretly after meeting at a tennis players' party in New York

Elina and her French tennis player husband Gaël Monfils (pictured on holiday) started dating secretly after meeting at a tennis players’ party in New York

The couple now have a child - and Elina stunned crowds by coming back to perform so well just nine months after giving birth

The couple now have a child – and Elina stunned crowds by coming back to perform so well just nine months after giving birth 

She has visited war torn areas of Ukraine and has also received a thank you letter from President Zelensky for the support she has shown her country.

In February this year she posted from the city of Irpin where she he added $20,000 to fundraising efforts to renovate a residential building damaged after shelling.

Just weeks later she posted a photo of herself wearing military fatigues of Ukrainian volunteer unit Khartiya (Charter) which became a brigade of the National Guard.

Before meeting her husband in 2018, she had a well publicised romance with England cricketer Reece Topley.

She and her husband Monfils, 36, started dating secretly after meeting at a tennis players’ party in New York and swapping phone numbers.

The couple married in Geneva in 2021, surrounded by friends and family, with influencer Valeria Potlova as Elina’s bridesmaid.

Elina recalled: ‘Yes, we had a very soulful wedding. There were not too many people, because it was difficult to have something big because of covid [restrictions].

‘It was one of the first times when my and Gael’s parents were at the same event. Of course, there was a language barrier because his parents don’t speak English, only French, and my parents don’t speak French.’

Elina has visited war torn areas of Ukraine and has also received a thank you letter from President Zelensky for the support she has shown her country - a photo of her with the war leader (pictured) is pinned to the top of her professional Instagram account

Elina has visited war torn areas of Ukraine and has also received a thank you letter from President Zelensky for the support she has shown her country – a photo of her with the war leader (pictured) is pinned to the top of her professional Instagram account

The tennis power-couple got married in a 'soulful' wedding in Geneva in 2021 surrounded by friends and family. Pictured: Posing for a holiday snap on the back of a boat

The tennis power-couple got married in a ‘soulful’ wedding in Geneva in 2021 surrounded by friends and family. Pictured: Posing for a holiday snap on the back of a boat

She admitted in another interview how her and her husband had their ‘own money’, but also a shared budget.

The player added: ‘When you earn big money, you always need a marriage agreement, especially when both sides have their own big projects and big expenses. This is normal.’

Elina’s mother Elena admitted in an interview with Sport Segodnya in 2017 that her daughter was shy as a chid.

She said: ‘Elina didn’t like to talk to the coach or to anyone at all. We warned him that the girl was not talkative, although at home she was a cheerful and active child. But not in public. For three years – somewhere from five to eight years old – she didn’t talk to anyone at all when training.’

‘She started going to school Number 35 with intensive English, and studied there until Year Four. She started training seriously, needed to go to contests, and they didn’t quite understand it at the school. We transferred her to an Olympic reserve school.’

Talking at the time of her daughter’s relationship with cricketer Topley, she recalled how she had met them together for the first time in Monaco.

She said: ‘Elina has an apartment there, and he flew to her for two days. They rarely see each other, because he himself is an athlete and he only has Saturday and Sunday off. And he flew to Roland Garros.

‘The boy is very good. I like him. Calm, attentive. Some classic English restraint. They met last fall, but at first Elina did not tell us about him. In general, I don’t want to talk about it strongly, because it’s very difficult to build relationships with her and his lifestyle.

‘These are very rare encounters. Hopefully they will work it out. I saw his family in London at Wimbledon – they came and supported Elina. I understand she liked his family.

‘And the boy loves his parents, treats his mother very tenderly. He lives separately from his parents from the age of 18, he has his own house. That is, the boy is completely independent, and I have an image of a gentleman, a calm person, but who knows exactly what he wants. ‘