It’s more than 2,500 kilometers by car from her homeland of Ukraine, but when in Rome, Elina Svitolina feels like she’s home.

“I’ve been coming here many times and I enjoy the atmosphere,” Svitolina told Monday from Foro Italico. “I enjoy the center court and all that’s happening around on site. It’s very different, but it brings a lot of energy.

“Yeah, just like to play here, like the city a lot. So it makes all together a good result.”

She was being modest. For Svitolina, it’s been consistently great results at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, including back-to-back titles in 2017-18. This is her 10th visit to the Eternal City and she’s compiled a record of 16-7.

As the No.16 seed, she’ll have a first-round bye and play the winner of the match between Italian wild card Sara Errani and Amanda Anisimova.

While Svitolina has always had an all-court game — she’s reached at least the quarterfinals of all four Grand Slams — she has a special affinity for clay. Her most recent title, last year in Strasbourg, made her a two-time winner on the clay in that French city.

“Yes, I’ve been playing quite well in defense and then going into attack,” Svitolina said. “I think this kind of style is really suitable for clay courts. I feel like here the courts are playing a bit slower than in Madrid and I have a little bit more time to recover and to think how to structure the rallies.”

She was ranked on the cusp of the Top 10 in 2017, when she made her first big impression in Rome. She had lost three of four previous matches there, but defeated Alize Cornet in a second-set tiebreak and came back to stun qualifier Mona Barthel 3-6, 6-0, 6-0 in the third round.

She locked up with Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals and, despite the passage of seven years and hundreds of sets, Svitolina has a vivid memory from that match.

“Yeah,” she said, “I had a second-set tiebreaker, really tough. That brought me confidence. I was playing not my best tennis going in, I would say, but improved throughout the tournament. I was playing aggressive tennis in important moments.”

That 6-2, 7-6(9) win was her first against the talented Czech Republic player in six meetings. After Garbiñe Muguruza retired from their semifinal match trailing 4-1 with a neck ailment, Svitolina faced Simona Halep, the Madrid champion and winner of 10 straight matches. She had also won both previous matches against Svitolina.

And though she dropped the first set, Svitolina was a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 winner — defeating her third straight Top 10 player. It was Svitolina’s fourth title of the year, gave her a tour-leading 31 victories and vaulted her back into the Top 10.

“Played a great final against a great clay-court player,” Svitolina said.

2018 Rome highlights: Svitolina slides to second straight Rome title over Halep

It happened again the following year.

This time, she rolled through Petra Martic, Daria Kasatkina, Angelique Kerber, Anett Kontaveit and, again in the final, World No.1 Halep. The final, in Stadio Centrale, produced an emphatic 6-0, 6-4 victory and it avenged her loss to Halep the previous year in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

“When you come back as a defending champion, you have a lot of good memories, you have confidence from the last year,” Svitolina said. “Of course, playing her for me is always special. I had great support. It’s a big vibe. The crowd is very loud, very engaged.

“I really love to play on the center court here. I had some good moments on that court.”

Svitolina’s life has changed drastically since winning those back-to-back titles. In July 2021, she married fellow tennis pro Gael Monfils and in October 2022, they welcomed daughter Skai into the world. Svitolina, who turns 30 in the fall, says her game has changed.

“I feel like I play more aggressive now,” she said. “I try to lead the rally. Of course, I’m not getting younger, so I have to rely more on my power. Physically, I’m still there. I feel like I can win points in a shorter way. And this is for me the goal now to balance being defensive in the past and being aggressive now.”

Svitolina started the season quickly, reaching the final in Auckland and the fourth round at the Australian Open when she suffered a back injury against Linda Noskova. That forced her to retire after only three games and she’s been trying to regain an equilibrium ever since. Svitolina said she’s feeling better now, gaining strength as she gets more court time.

It helps to be at home.

“I think right now the priority is to be healthy,” Svitolina said. “I know that it will come for me, just have to really take care, to be smart with scheduling and practices. I want to play, feel well, to give myself a good opportunity to bring my best game.”


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