PARIS Elina Svitolina has been tipped as one of the Roland Garros favourites after winning the Italian Open, and the 'home advantage' could prove key for the Ukrainian who now lives in Paris.
The world number six eased into the second round with a no-nonsense 6-4 6-3 win against Kazakh Yaroslava Shvedova and will next take on Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova for a place in the third round.
The 22-year-old trained in Belgium at the Justine Henin academy from 2010-12 and also spent time practicing in southern France before taking former French pro Thierry Ascione as a coach this season, 18 years after hitting the ball for the first time.
"I have a brother who is nine years older than me. He started tennis at the age of 8. I was watching him train all the time," the 22-year-old Svitolina told Reuters in an interview.
"And I was looking for attention so I started tennis. That's how it all started. I was 4."
Svitolina was born in Odessa before she moved to Kharkiv, near the Russian border, but recently moved to Paris after pairing up with Ascione.
"I live in Paris, I go to Kharkiv on holidays when I have but my coach is from Paris so I train here," she said.
That's a blessing for Svitolina, as Ukraine has very limited means in terms of facilities to train on clay.
"It's the first time that I get this kind of opportunity, I am very grateful to the French tennis federation that they gave me this opportunity," she said.
Svitolina gets to hit balls on the Parisian clay, a surface that is very specific and taken care of all year round, making it easier for her to get started at the French Open, where most of the players need time to adjust at the beginning of the two-week tournament.
"It obviously gives me confidence, but there are players in front of me who are extremely motivated to beat me, so it is important for me to stay in a zone," she explained.
In Rome, Svitolina stayed focused throughout to take her fourth title of the year, notably beating defending French Open champion Garbine Muguruza and Romanian Simona Halep.
At Roland Garros, Svitolina knows her way around the walkways and also understands French well.
"I know French. I trained for three years in Belgium and then went to southern France for two years. I understand everything and I now even speak a little bit," she said.
She nevertheless remains close to her motherland.
"What is happening to Ukraine is tough, but I try to stay away from it because there are people taking care of the situation," she said.
"The only thing I can do is do the best I can in my sport to represent Ukraine in the world."
No player from Ukraine has ever won a singles' title at the French Open, with only Andrei Medvedev reaching the final in 1999.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)