Elina Svitolina cheered Gael Monfils from the stands as the Frenchman fought hard before going down to Matteo Berrettini in five sets on a floodlit Rod Laver Arena at last year’s Australian Open in Melbourne. Similar visuals, with roles reversed, warmed the hearts of tennis fans around the world on Friday as Monfils and Svitolina’s coach Raemon Sluiter saw the Ukrainian come from a set down to beat Anna Blinkova 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the third round of the French Open on Court Simmone-Mathieu.
The couple has returned to Grand Slam tennis in Paris after missing the last four Majors. Both, husband and wife, have gone through different journeys in the past year-and-a-half and supported each other along the way.
The world of Svitolina and many other Ukrainians turned upside down in late February last year following Russia’s invasion of their country, which the Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation” to support the Russian-controlled breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
A few days later, Svitolina, after initially refusing to play against her Russian opponent Anastasia Potapova in the first round in Monterrey, came out dressed in Ukraine’s blue and gold colours and won the match 6-2, 6-1. Post the win, she said, “I think it’s my mission to unite our tennis community to stand with Ukraine, to help Ukraine because what we’re going through is a horrible thing for all Ukrainians. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m playing for my country and doing my best using my platform and using my resources to introduce that and try to invite people to support Ukraine.”
Former World No. 3 Svitolina has been outspoken on the subject ever since. She has advocated for a complete ban on Russians and Belarusian athletes for the 2024 Paris Olympics and refuses to shake hands with her opponents from these two countries after a match, as was the case against Russia’s Blinkova.
“I am Ukrainian. I am standing for my country, doing anything possible to support men and women who are right now in the front line fighting for our land, our country,” Svitolina said.
“Can you imagine the guy or girl in the front line looking at me and I am acting like nothing is happening?”
Svitolina was also going through a major change in her personal life in the last one year. The couple, who got married just before the Tokyo Olympics, welcomed a baby girl - Skai - in October. It would not have been easy for Svitolina to return to Tour-level tennis in Charleston this year after not playing since the Miami Open a little more than 12 months ago.
“Well, I just try to play match by match. I was coming here without any expectations, you know. Coming back after giving birth is extremely complicated. But I am really motivated to go further in this tournament and have some really tough opponents. So, it is a matter of recovering and being ready for the next battle,” she said after her win over Blinkova.
Yet, her performance at the ongoing French Open and the title-winning run in Strasbourg the week before has shown the kind of fighter she is. Her fourth-round match against ninth-seeded Daria Kasatkina, another Russian, proved to be a big test but the Ukrainian held on for a 6-4, 7-6(5) win to reach the French Open quarterfinals for the fourth time in her career.
Monfils and his injury struggles
Monfils is one of the remaining members of the ‘New Musketeers’ of French tennis with the other being Richard Gasquet after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon bid farewell last year. La Monf pulled out of last year’s home Slam due to a right foot injury, came back to Tour-level tennis in Canada and sustained the same injury again in the third round. Only this time, things got worse and the 36-year-old could not play for the next seven months.
The 6’4” Frenchman, a former World No. 6, is known for his unusual sliding technique, athleticism and showmanship. Struggling to find his rhythm, he could not win a single Tour-level match this year since his return in Indian Wells in March. However, those aspects of his game were on display in front of the home fans in the night session match at Roland-Garros on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Tuesday.
Monfils seemed to be suffering from cramps late in the fifth set against a much younger opponent in Argentina’s Sebastian Baez and trailed 0-4. Yet, in the next 11 minutes, the local favourite, smiling in the face of adversity, won four consecutive games to level the score, leading to surreal scenes as the Parisian crowd and Monfils himself broke into the national anthem, La Marseillaise. Monfils beat Baez 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 to set up a second-round clash with Holger Rune.
However, the much-anticipated fixture, scheduled to be held during the night session on Thursday, could not take place as Monfils pulled out of the tournament due to a wrist injury.
Monfils said, “I’m not really sure what I feel, but it’s more than being disappointed. How many [more] Roland-Garros will I play? That’s the question. I don’t know what the answer is. How many will I play? For the time being I’m trying to digest this.”
While it would have been harsh to expect a lot from Monfils, the fact that the younger generation of French tennis failed to show up raises a lot of questions. No French player reached the third round this year, something which has happened only once before in the Open Era.
Monfils and Svitolina - a support system
Monfils and Svitolina both have been each other’s support system since they announced their relationship in 2019. Be it the Ukrainian standing up for Monfils after he got racially abused post the 2020 Italian Open or the Frenchman being there for her as she struggled to deal with the war situation at home, both former junior Grand Slam champions have faced challenges together and will continue to do so.
- Richarlison to seek psychological help on return to England
- India vs Sri Lanka Dream11 prediction, Asia Cup 2023 Super Four: Playing XI updates, fantasy team for IND vs SL match today
- Sunil Chhetri part of Indian football team’s revised Asian Games squad, 13 players omitted from original squad
- NBA panel approves new policy on resting stars: Reports
- Ferrando upset with AIFF underplaying Ashique injury