Elina Svitolina vividly remembers her struggles as an anxious young player on the international tennis circuit and is now campaigning for better mental health protection for juniors at the start of their careers.
The former Svitolina, ranked No. 3, remembers how difficult the weight of expectations was, the loneliness and the long journeys. Not to mention replaying crushing defeats in her mind when she’s stuck in an isolated hotel room.
“I had some tough times in my career (at) a young age. You travel alone, just with your coach. When you travel so many weeks every year, it can be a big challenge,” said Svitolina, a player 27-year-old Ukrainian woman told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday: “You lose pretty much every week, so it’s mentally very difficult to deal with.”
She therefore welcomes the idea of psychologists being readily available for juniors on the tennis circuit.
“I think it’s the right way,” she told the AP in Paris. “Because traveling from January to November can be very difficult. The expectations of the media, the parents, the coach. You work a lot and don’t do as well as you would like.
Svitolina handled things differently in her younger days, and perhaps with more resilience. But says juggling so much, too young, affected his emotional development and personality.
“Of course, something changes in your mental life. You become more downhill, you become more (of) a sad person,” she said. “You get a little lonely, you miss your friends, you miss your family. You’re in a hotel every time, packing your bags every few days to move to the other town.
Svitolina has been part of the elite women’s circuit: winning 16 career titles, reaching the quarter-finals or better in all four major tournaments, including the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. There are players who haven’t reached the highest level, but face similar hidden struggles.
“There are a lot of things that people don’t see, don’t realize, that happen to the young player and what he goes through,” Svitolina said. “For me, it took a few years to find a good person that I could share (stuff) with.”
In July last year, Svitolina married French player Gael Monfils, who continues to play on the men’s circuit.
Svitolina, who is seeing a psychologist, was one of several speakers Wednesday at the Global Sports Week conference in Paris. She addressed mental health in sport and further discussed young players’ access to psychological support.
“For juniors, the transition can be tough, that’s why it’s important to have a mental trainer,” she told the forum. “To give them that opportunity, if they need to share their fears, to share their worries. Its very important.”
Young players might feel disoriented early on, she said.
“When you are a junior, it is extremely difficult to know what will happen to you. You just watch the players win trophies, all smiling and happy, but you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes,” she said. “When I was growing up, I never really heard anyone talk about their struggles…People (took it) for weakness.”
Svitolina, 27th, is on a break from tennis. She constantly fears for her family in Ukraine, affected by the 11-week Russian invasion. The mental strain of the war troubled her so much that she stopped acting.
“Sometimes your body can’t handle that pressure,” she said. “When I’m not mentally fit, my physical condition goes down.”
Misconceptions about successful athletes need to change, Svitolina said, that fame and financial gain provide them with some kind of magical immunity from emotional and mental fragility.
“I feel like people are mixing (things); like when you have a lot of money you should be happy,” she said. “To me, a successful person is one who recovers from tough times, tough losses. I think that’s the best value you can have. It shows how strong you are.
More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports