For Ukrainian tennis players, the Billie Jean King Cup in North Carolina is a sanctuary

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ASHEVILLE, NC — In the past six and a half weeks, the only thing that has given 22-year-old Ukrainian Katarina Zavatska respite from thinking about the terrifying circumstances of her home country has been hitting the blurred yellow ball in front of her.

Zavatska, ranked the 201st tennis player in the world, was born in Lutsk, Ukraine, where much of her extended family remains. Her father was to join her in her apartment in France from February 24 and then accompany her to tournaments, but the Russian bombardments began that day.

Since then, life for Zavatska and countless other Ukrainians has become a hellish cycle of daily phone calls home to confirm the safety and whereabouts of their loved ones, refreshing news sites for updates. reporters day in the field while trying to continue with the routines of their much more stable lives.

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The United States will host Ukraine in a 2022 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas qualifying event on April 15-16 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.

This week, Asheville serves as a final sanctuary for Zavatska and the rest of the four-man Ukrainian squad who will face Team USA in a Billie Jean King Cup qualifying match at Harrah’s Cherokee Center on Friday and Saturday, an event that will raise money for Ukrainian relief efforts.

“It’s very difficult,” Zavatska said at a press conference on Tuesday. “There’s not a day when we don’t think about it. … But on the other hand, we just have to live. For example, me, what I can do is play tournaments, earn money, send to my family to help them.”

Some players, including Dayana Yastremska, a member of the BJK Cup team, had to flee the country themselves after the war started. Yastremska (the world’s No. 93 player) and her 15-year-old sister took a small boat from Ukraine to Romania and then continued on to Lyon, France, where she joined the professional tennis circuit, a- she declared. ESPN.

As they bounced around the world for tournaments each week, Ukrainians on the WTA Tour kept tabs on their families.

Olga Savchuk, Ukrainian coach and captain of the BJK team, has family in an air-raid shelter; some members of Zavatska’s family have moved to her original base in France, while many others are still in her hometown.

“We live in two different realities,” Savchuk said. “How can I even have a cup of tea right now? My family is like underground. I get goosebumps when I even talk about it.”

From Lyons, to Indian Wells, to Bogota, to Charleston and wherever players have found themselves playing since the war began, they have continued to focus on one of the few things they have control over, battling to win points and games they’ve done since they were kids.

“Day to day for me, the court was the only place I could live my life, because there was a ball, there was a racquet, and I just had to hit it and not think about it” , said Zavatska. “It’s the most amazing thing, how lucky to be playing tennis and being on the court, to be able to do something like that.”

Even in more ordinary times, the life of a professional tennis player is nomadic and often isolated. Only players at the top of the sport can afford to bring multiple team members with them to every tournament they play in, and there’s no point once the game has started.

Team events such as the BJK Cup can therefore be welcome changes for all players, and this is especially the case for the Ukrainians this week.

“It will be something very special, I would say,” Savchuk said. “I’m sure we’ll have the support of the American people as well, because we believe that even outside of tennis. … We’re proud to have this chance and this opportunity.”

Ukraine's Katarina Zavatska trains at Harrah's Cherokee Center ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup on April 12, 2022.

Ukraine’s Katarina Zavatska trains at Harrah’s Cherokee Center ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup on April 12, 2022.

Tennis fans, players and organizations have rallied for Ukraine across the world in a variety of ways, and this will continue throughout the weekend in Asheville.

Billie Jean King is personally donating $50,000 to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, the United States Tennis Association is donating 10% of event ticket revenue, and local sponsors have also pledged donations based on ticket sales.

Team USA and the Ukrainians have planned a group dinner on Tuesday evening, an event traditionally hosted officially by the International Tennis Federation but which has been omitted from the official BJK Cup schedule since the start of the pandemic.

“Very kind, very generous and very nice of them to be greeted like that,” Zavatska said. “Have dinner together. … Just to be like normal people.”

At times, this relative sense of normalcy has been cause for guilt for Ukrainians who continue tennis halfway around the world with loved ones whose lives have been completely turned upside down by the violence.

But the players have made an uneasy peace with their current arrangement, and this week Asheville will serve as the backdrop for their latest quest: to qualify for the BJK Cup finals as a country.

“It kills you physically. Even if you are not in Ukraine, you worry every day, every second for your family, all the people of Ukraine,” Zavatska said. “For me, being on the court was kind of, like, unreal, you know? Now…when I get a little stressed on the court or something, I think, why would I be stressed? There’s so much more going on. things, so it’s just a tennis match.

“Yeah, just every day, I stay focused on that ball, the yellow ball, and that’s it. Yeah, it’s like that every day.”

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Ukraine news: For tennis players, the Billie Jean King Cup is a sanctuary

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