Former women’s tennis world number three Elina Svitolina has told AFP she hopes one day to return and see her octogenarian grandmother who has been trapped in the Black Sea port of Odessa since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I hope that this will end one day and I can come back and see her,” said Svitolina.
The 27-year-old was speaking a week after she and Ukrainian Champions League-winning football legend Andriy Shevchenko was asked on a Zoom call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to become ambassadors for United24.
The charity was launched by Zelensky to collect donations to cover Ukraine’s most pressing needs: Defense and de-mining, medical aid and to rebuild the country which has been devastated since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion in February.
Svitolina is expecting her first child — a baby girl — in October with French tennis star Gael Monfils but says that happy news is offset by her anxiety for family members who remain in Ukraine.
Svitolina’s parents and brother managed to leave but aside from her grandmother Tamara, her uncle and his family remain in Odessa.
The city, a multicultural crossroads of a million inhabitants, is under de facto Russian blockade and has found itself isolated.
Svitolina, a Wimbledon and US Open semi-finalist in 2019, says it is especially harrowing for her grandmother’s generation who experienced the Nazi invasion in 1941.
“It is tough for older people to get through another war,” she said.
“The shortage of food, staying at home or in a basement for days… for them it is extremely stressful and very, very mentally tough.
“I try to keep contact with her in Odessa and try and help her as much as I can. She was way too old to move.”
Svitolina says her grandmother has an unlikely saviour.
“She is with her cat who she says is her biggest defender!
“My uncle and his family live not so far from her. They see each other when it is possible to leave the house and this is a big help.
“Our friends are also helping by volunteering to go and see her.”
Despite not having lived in Ukraine for years, Svitolina said “it feels like home” and she used to visit three or four times a year.
– ‘Drop of help’ –
Hence her desire to do something to help her country like other leading Ukrainian sports personalities such as fellow tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky and Sheriff Tiraspol manager Yuriy Vernydub, who returned to join up.
“A lot of my friends have come back and taken up weapons to defend the country,” she said.
“So many people are struggling right now that is why I feel like through (United24) we can do something that will help all Ukrainians and military and children who are in need.
“It is a small part to play that will hopefully make a difference.”
Svitolina admits she was nervous when she joined former Ukrainian national manager Shevchenko for the call with Zelensky.
“It was such an honor and I was really worried like never before. Even when I was in the Wimbledon semi-finals I was not that worried,” she said.
She and Shevchenko will raise funds through charity events and publicise it through their social media platforms. Svitolina though can no longer play in exhibition matches due to her pregnancy, however.
She says her “mission” is the least she can do given the example in leadership Zelensky had set since the outset.
“He gave me this hope that we will win this war, that we will come through this,” she said.
“That is why with his example he gives all this hope to Ukrainians.
“It is a huge example of respect for President Zelensky for his bravery in staying in the country. He has surpassed all expectations.”
Svitolina says after several months of war and no end in sight it was important to keep people’s minds focused on the conflict.
“I have so much pain in my heart seeing now how many cities destroyed and how many young and old people have lost their lives in one moment,” she said.
“They need help and I can be the one who can add a drop of help to the ocean for them.”