Elina Svitolina Thinks Russian Olympians Should Be Banned

Elina Svitolina woke up on a mid-March morning in Palm Springs, Calif., where she was staying for a few days after competing in the Indian Wells tennis tournament, to scary but all-too-familiar news: Russia had attacked Odesa, her hometown in Ukraine, once again. This time, Russian ballistic missiles had struck a residential area in the Black Sea port city, killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 70, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Svitolina, 29, was named the 2023 Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) comeback player of the year after returning from maternity leave: she made runs to the quarterfinals of the French Open and the semis of Wimbledon, where she upset world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the quarters. She’s also emerged as perhaps the most prominent and outspoken critic in the sports world of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. She’s an ambassador for United24, an initiative started by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to raise wartime humanitarian and defense funds for the country. United24 has collected nearly $628 million in donations, according to its website.

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Svitolina’s grandmother and uncle remain in Odesa but fortunately, escaped unscathed from the latest attack. Svitolina, who lives in Monaco with her husband, French tennis player Gaël Monfils, and their 1-year-old daughter Skai, has tried to get her grandmother to move out of Odesa. But she refuses. It’s her home.

“People are kind of used to the attacks, which is impossible, I guess, for us who will never experience these kinds of situations to understand,” Svitolina tells TIME. “It’s just very, very sad what’s going on right now.” 

She will attempt, as best she can, to keep her mind on tennis as Ukraine takes on Romania in a Billie Jean King Cup qualifying matchup on Amelia Island, in northeast Florida, on April 12 and 13. It’s one of eight qualifiers being played around the globe this week (the U.S. hosts Belgium in Orlando). The winners all advance to the finals, which take place in November in Seville, Spain: 2023 champions Canada, 2023 runners-up Italy, host nation Spain, and wild card Czechia have already qualified for the 12-team event.

While each of the other matchups will have a hometown crowd, the war made it impossible for Ukraine to host as it was supposed to. “We have to think about the safety of teams, of the people, and right now it’s not even an option to play in Ukraine,” says Svitolina. “One day, we will hopefully have good news of Ukraine winning this war, and we will be hosting many more matches in Ukraine.”

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In December, Svitolina’s foundation took over management duties for the Ukrainian women’s national team at the Billie Jean King Cup and chose Amelia Island at least in part because it has clay courts. (The WTA tour starts its clay-court season in earnest later this month, culminating in the French Open.)

Ukrainians have told Svitolina that her matches serve a welcome psychic distraction. She spent a few days in Ukraine in February conducting a clinic for a few hundred children in Lviv with Sergiy Stakhovsky, the former Ukrainian tennis player who has served on the front line of the war. “Kids are mentally drained, mentally damaged,” she says. “They see their parents in constant stress.” She has helped raise money to rebuild housing that was shelled in Irpin, near Kviv. Her foundation has funded a series of five youth tournaments across Ukraine during the war; in November, she handed out trophies for one event in a bomb shelter in Kviv. 

She plans to represent Ukraine at this summer’s Paris Olympics and believes the restrictions on Russian participation are insufficient. Though they will be excluded from the opening ceremonies, individual athletes from Russia and Belarus, which has aided Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, will be eligible to compete in the Games, just not under their country’s flags. Svitolina thinks Russian athletes should be barred altogether.

“The behavior of Russia has been against what the Olympics and the Olympic movement is about, and this alone should exclude them from the Games,” she says. “How is it fair that they compete when they have put Ukrainian Olympic athletes at a huge disadvantage? Our athletes have been going to the front, to protect us and our way of life rather than train and prepare for the Olympics.”

If Svitolina had an audience with Vladimir Putin, what would she say to him? “I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” she says. “There’s nothing that I want to really tell him.” 

As the war drags on, Ukraine will be watching the event this weekend, and pulling for Svitolina and her teammates to make the finals in Seville. “I don’t feel like I’m only a tennis player,” says Svitolina. “I feel like I have the opportunities to help and also play for Ukrainian people, with their unbreakable spirit. Each time I step on the court, each time that I play a tennis match, I represent the Ukrainian people and their strength.”

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