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Lesia Tsurenko overcomes adversity of body and mind to earn Iga Swiatek rematch at Roland Garros
The Ukrainian, last in the fourth round in Paris five years ago, has had a resurgent season while her heart is firmly with her compatriots fighting back home.
Published Jun 04, 2023
FLASHBACK: In Rome, Lesia Tsurenko beat compatriot Elina Svitolina in an all-Ukrainian affair.
Though would've been easy for her to do so at any point over the last five years, Lesia Tsurenko has never quit—and that dogged persistence has earned the Ukrainian veteran a shot at world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round of Roland Garros.
Tsurenko, now 34 years old as of the third day of these championships, is in the midst of a Parisian renaissance. A one-time world No. 23, the unseeded Tsurenko has toppled Barbora Krejcikova, Lauren Davis and Bianca Andreescu to reach the last 16, and will take to Court Suzanne-Lenglen Monday against the defending champion.
It's her best Grand Slam results since she reached the quarterfinals of the 2018 US Open, beating then-world No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki en route, and her first time to the fourth round in Paris since that year, too. But it's all the more impressive when you examine where Tsurenko was at this point last year.
Last year, in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she thought about quitting tennis completely: Languishing outside the Top 100 in the rankings, she was not only struggling with a chronic right elbow injury—something that first began to plague her around the period where she flirted with the Top 20 in 2019—but guilt over not being in her country to do her part in the war effort.
"It was actually a big decision for me to stay in tennis," she told reporters after beating Andreescu. "I think what really helped me is that I increased my work with a psychologist. I increased a lot because I had panic attacks, and I had really tough time.
"It was a learning process how to continue playing in these conditions and how to try to go on court and with some bigger goals. Not just play tennis, but I will be honest. I want to earn as more as I can to donate as more as I can. This is actually a bigger thing that I have in my mind when I decided that I will continue playing and I will be on tour."
"I never played for money. Never in my life was I thinking about money going on court and thinking about how big prize money I get if I win," she continued. "But actually, I have to say that I had a conversation with [former ATP player] Alex Dolgopolov, which really helped me. He told me, 'Look, we will do our job here, and you continue your job, and you continue what you can do the best.' He told me that, you know, we need money.
"I said, OK. So I continue playing. ... It's just a bigger thing in my head. And often when I have tough moments in my match, I also remind myself that I'm from Ukraine, that I'm Ukrainian, and I'm a part of the strongest nation, and I have to be proud, and I am proud that I'm Ukrainian."
Tsurenko's management of her mind over the last year-plus has added to the extensive management she was already doing for her body. Between the 2022 and 2023 BNP Paribas Opens, she retired or gave a walkover in nine of the 18 tournaments she played. But she played just two tournaments after last year's US Open, a break Tsurenko said rejuvenated her body as she hoped for a "miracle."
"I had a long, long story with my right elbow, I've said it many times, it was a terrible time of my life having pain every day," she said. "I was not able to play tennis a lot. I was not able to practice. I pulled out from tournaments, retired so many times, and it was very painful mentally. So this is another part of my life.
"I don't have so much pain right now, so I can practice more, I can play more. Of course, it makes me very happy that I'm playing, and I did not expect that. I'll be honest, at the beginning of this year I did not expect.
"Of course, I'm winning a lot of matches, which is a great feeling for sure. I tried to stay focused. And, believe me, I always remember about my country and about my people, Ukrainian people."
Tsurenko entered Roland Garros ranked No. 66, thanks in part to a runner-up showing in Hua Hin, Thailand in February—her first final in four years—and other strong results. But she comes into her match against Swiatek as a firm underdog, but in the context of the tournament and her past two meetings with Swiatek. Swiatek leads their head-to-head 2-0; both matches were played on clay—at Roland Garros last year and in Rome last month—and Swiatek and took them both by identical 6-2, 6-0 scores.
"Probably one of the biggest challenges on tour right now," Tsurenko said. "I just had a match against her in Rome, which I think it was good just to feel how she's playing and to feel the speed of her shots. It was definitely a good experience for me. It was a good lesson for me, so I will try to play better this time."
"Tennis is the love of my life," she added, "so I'm really enjoying being here."