The Self-Improvement of Elina Svitolina

The Self-Improvement of Elina Svitolina

The former world No. 3 kicked off her 2021 campaign in Abu Dhabi after an off-season dedicated to improving her mental edge, while blending business and creative pursuits.

Elina Svitolina began 2021 with a straightforward—if lofty—New Year’s resolution: win every match.

“The goals are always quite high,” she clarified during pre-tournament press at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open, “but you have to break everything down, focus on every match, and not get too distracted by all the changes happening. I try not to complicate things too much: winning is the goal.”

The former world No. 3 is one for one so far, with a 6-4, 6-3 win over American Jessica Pegula, her first since Roland Garros, where she endured a shock quarterfinal defeat against qualifier Nadia Podoroska.

Twice a Grand Slam semifinalist, Svitolina put all her stock in a potential terre battue triumph, opting out of the US Open and requisite North American quarantine bubble to maximize her clay-court preparation.

“Had I gotten COVID, I would have had to spend most of my time my room in the U.S., and I wouldn’t have had time to get ready for Roland Garros,” she explained on Thursday night. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go the best, even though I did win one title. I wish I could have played better at Roland Garros, but in the end, I gave myself a good chance to play well.”

Svitolina, who chose eventual champion Iga Swiatek as her Melbourne bubble practice partner ahead of the Australian Open, is aiming to avoid another letdown with the help of a sports psychologist she hired over the off-season.

“It takes lot of courage to open up, and it’s also important to find the right person. It’s not a matter of being a good mental coach as much as finding that good relationship. It’s like finding the right husband or tennis coach or friend. You can look for a long time, or find someone really quick and be lucky.

“I tried a few different people that my agent and friends recommended to me. Unfortunately, those didn’t work out, but I found a good connection with the lady I’m working with now. She’s not too picky on how I feel, and somehow, I open up really easily with her, and we share a lot. We’re finding the right ways to make me feel good and strong, mentally.”

The 26-year-old showed off some sharpened mental toughness against Pegula, saving all four break points faced to oust her former junior colleague in 83 minutes, but acknowledged tougher tests were still ahead.

“I don’t think that, just because I hired a sports psychologist, that I’m suddenly going to win every single match and never get angry on the court again. This will come, and I will have to deal with that. The main goal was trying to find better ways to deal with the stuff that goes on around me.

“You can’t win every single point or every single match in tennis. It’s very rare when you’re only losing a few matches a year, so I have to deal with that. My goal is to not get too high or low.”

A steadier mindset will be essential to achieving some of those bigger goals Svitolina keeps on the backburner, including a belated second appearance at the Summer Olympic Games. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, her 2016 Rio debut featured a thrilling win over top seed Serena Williams en route to the quarterfinals.

“The Olympics is obviously a massive deal in Ukraine, and in Eastern Europe, it’s something big. That’s why I really want to prepare and compete well there. I’m looking forward to it, and hopefully it can happen this year.”

Off-court pursuits are keeping her grounded in the meantime, including SvitFit energy bars, a new business venture she unveiled last fall.

“I had this idea for quite a long time. There are so many nutrition bars and ‘healthy stuff’ on the market, but I wanted to do something that really speaks to me and that I can share with the people around. Right now, most of the stores and distribution is in Ukraine, but we’re trying to expand and bring it worldwide.

“I just want to share some little piece of me, because every bar we’ve created, I put a lot of work into it. It’s fully natural and only healthy stuff.”

Social media has also allowed her to flex her muscle—both creative and athletic—as she grows an off-beat TikTok profile with occasional help from boyfriend and fellow touring pro Gaël Monfils. Up to nearly 11,000 followers since launching the account during the pandemic, Svitolina has moved from dance and fitness challenges to lip-syncing along with the latest memes.

“I’m not sure about my dancing, but it’s quite fun to do something different: to put a little touch of tennis, a touch of professional athlete. It’s quite fun, and I think they go over even better when I post them on Instagram. I think people are getting more involved and into them. The platform itself is very tricky, because you need to know the algorithm, and it’s changing all the time, so it’s tough to get lots of views.

“I really enjoy expressing myself and to have fun. In this kind of time right now, where everything is unpredictable, it’s good to try having fun. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing.”

Set to face former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva in the second round, Svitolina reverts back to her single-minded persona, eager to reap the rewards from her endless quest for self-improvement.

“For me, every match is like a test, and I try to really do everything that I practiced and worked on. I try to be focused on every point and see how it goes.”