CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Elina Svitolina did not exactly ease her way back in her first match as a mother: Her return after more than a year away from the tennis tour was a back-and-forth three-setter lasting 2 hours, 46 minutes at the Charleston Open on Monday.
Svitolina — ranked as high as No. 3 in the past and currently No. 1,081 — could not quite pull out a victory, ceding the last two games and losing 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-4 to Yulia Putintseva on the main stadium’s green clay on a cloudy, breezy day.
“Physically, it was not easy for me,” said Svitolina, a 28-year-old from Ukraine. “It showed, I think, that I’m not at my best, but I’m getting there.”
She felt goosebumps when the crowd roared to mark her entrance. There were her familiar big-cut forehands. Her customary visor. And the unmistakable competitiveness displayed by clenched fists and yells of “Let’s go!”
“It’s very nice to have her back. She’s always been super nice and an inspiration for me, because she was a warrior on court, a fighter, and I love these kind of players. It’s even more inspirational seeing her come back as a mom,” said Paula Badosa, who is seeded 12th in Charleston. “I’m very happy for her and I hope soon she’s back where she belongs.”
Svitolina and her husband, fellow player Gael Monfils, became parents in October, when their daughter, Skaï, was born. From the time of her previous match — at the Miami Open in March 2022, when she was ranked No. 20 — Svitolina knew she wanted to come back to tennis.
Just didn’t know when.
She began the process Jan. 2, working alongside Monfils, who was coming back from an injury.
“Good company,” Svitolina said. “We really motivated each other to train really hard, every day.”
They’re both adjusting to life as mom and dad with jobs that require plenty of travel. Monfils went to California and Florida for recent tournaments; now he is at home in Monaco with Skaï, FaceTiming with Svitolina as much as possible.
“She loves the phone. She holds the phone. It’s not going to be easy to take the phone from her in the future,” Svitolina said with a laugh. “She’s getting used to FaceTime.”
This is the longest she has been away from her baby since a week-long trip to Ukraine in February, when Svitolina visited her grandmother, uncle and other relatives and joined former pro Sergiy Stakhovsky in holding a tennis clinic for 300 kids amid the war that began a year earlier when Russia invaded.
Svitolina thought it was “sad” that the All England Club announced last week it would allow players from Russia and Belarus, which aided in the attack, to return to Wimbledon in June after being banned from the tournament in 2022 because of the invasion.
One of her proudest moments in tennis was earning a bronze medal for Ukraine at the Tokyo Olympics. Among her other accomplishments: winning the season-ending WTA Finals in 2018 and reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the following year.
Now she’ll head to smaller venues on the sport’s lower levels — a tournament in Switzerland with $60,000 in total prize money; one in Portugal offering $100,000 — and try to figure out her schedule beyond that.
Does she still harbor hopes of a Grand Slam title one day?
“It’s the ultimate goal for me,” Svitolina said.
In other Day 1 matches, 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens was a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 winner against qualifier Louisa Chirico, 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova beat Jil Teichmann 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, Anna Kalinskaya defeated Anhelina Kalinina 7-6 (6), 6-4, qualifier Katherine Sebov got past Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, and Anna Blinkova eliminated Anna Bondar 7-6 (7), 6-2 to set up a second-round matchup against top-seeded Jessica Pegula.
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