LONDON: Had it not been for a bout of childhood jealousy, Elina Svitolina might never have become the most successful tennis player to emerge out of Ukraine or be tipped as one of the favourites for this year’s French Open title.
Desperate to grab some of the attention her parents Mikhaylo and Olena showered on her older brother Yulian, in 1999 Svitolina began pounding tennis balls with all the power she could muster from her five-year-old body.
“My brother was playing tennis … and he was getting all the attention from my parents. So because of him, I started playing tennis, and for me it was very important to play well so that I could get more attention from my parents,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview from Rome.
“They were so into tennis, they were travelling with my brother. So playing tennis myself was the only way I could get their attention. It really motivated me and I became the best in my group.”
Almost two decades on, the blonde 23-year-old is not far off from becoming the best in the world.
Now ranked fourth, Svitolina has been installed as one of the favourites to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Cup after she destroyed top-ranked Simona Halep in the Italian Open final to win her 12th title on Sunday.
But having bagged more tennis trophies than any other Ukrainian – Andriy Medvedev held the previous record of 11 – what Svitolina really wants is to conquer the top ranking.
“Definitely for me, my goal is to be number one. In Ukraine, being number one is something bigger (than winning a Grand Slam) because lots of people (notice you) if you are number one in the world,” said Svitolina, who has a large tiger draped with a necklace tattooed on her left thigh.
“For the tennis world, winning a Grand Slam might be better, but for people who do not know tennis, being number one gets more attention.”
The little girl who once harboured hopes of getting a little more attention from her parents will have no place to hide over the next fortnight as she takes centre stage on Roland Garros’ famed clay courts.
There, she will not only want to improve on her two quarterfinal appearances, but will also hope to emulate a feat last achieved by one of her former coaches, Justine Henin.
A junior champion in 1997, the Belgian went on to win four French Open titles from 2003 to 2007.
Svitolina hopes some of the lessons she learned from Henin during their year-long association in 2016 will help her to become the first woman since her former mentor to achieve the junior and women’s title double.
“There were small details that she told me that I have to do on court and off court. She shared a lot of her experience with me,” Svitolina, who captured the junior title aged 15 in 2010, said.
Svitolina credits Henin for her growth as a player.
“It was more about how she sees my game, what I have to improve to play more consistently and be stronger. We have different playing styles, so I just took on board what suited me and it helped me a lot.”
The pursuit of greatness means that the London-based Svitolina spends more time on the road than in her homeland, but putting Ukraine on the tennis map remains the ultimate goal for a player who was once offered money to switch allegiance to Israel.
“They offered me money and free training… (but) I never thought about it because for me, playing for Ukraine is special as I was born there and I was raised there,” she said.
“I’m very happy I didn’t (take up that offer). In Ukraine tennis is getting more popular because of my results, and this is amazing.”