Ukrainian tennis players live ‘parallel lives’ at Billie Jean King Cup

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In Asheville, North Carolina, the Ukrainian women’s tennis team is in the middle of a match against the American team for the Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, bombs rain down on their hometowns as war rages in Ukraine.

“I feel like we have two different realities right now. The tennis court, an incredible atmosphere, an incredible arena here. And then on the other side, we have people dying every day,” Katarina Zavatska told CNN Sport.

Despite a valiant 2-0 comeback, a stunning fightback ultimately failed as Team USA edged Ukraine in the doubles tiebreaker to take the 3-2 draw on Saturday.

Yastremska, ranked 93rd in the world, had beaten world No. 14 Jessica Pegula before Zavatska pulled off an even bigger upset to defeat Shelby Rogers, ranked 155 places above her to level Ukraine at 2-2.

However, a 7-6(5) 6-3 doubles win for Pegula and Asia Muhammad over Kichenok and Yastremska saw the USA through to the finals in November.

Leaving Ukraine

Less than three months ago, Kichenok and Yastremska were away from the tennis court, fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On February 25, Kichenok left Ukraine with his parents. She drove 31 hours straight from kyiv to Chisinau, Moldova – a 500 mile journey.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt such fear in my life. My body shook for two hours. I couldn’t speak. It was really shocking. And yes, for a few days I couldn’t eat anything. ” Kichenok told CNN. “Those days were the hardest of my life, I can say that for sure.”

Lyudmyla’s sister, Nadiia, had left Ukraine early to prepare for the Indian Wells Open and discovered the information war.

“I knew my sister was over there in kyiv, my mother is over there in kyiv, my father is in kyiv. And it was just – until they arrived in Moldova – just two days of hell”, Nadiia told CNN Sport. “I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like it. That fear is just hard to put into words. It separated me. I had constant panic attacks.”

Yastremska crossed the Danube into Romania from Izmail with her younger sister the same day the Kichenoks left Kyiv. But unlike Lyudmyla, the Yastremska sisters had to abandon their parents.

“That day I will remember all my life when I left, especially when we crossed the border,” Yastremska told CNN. “You see your parents across the river and you just didn’t realize until the end how this happened, how these things can happen in 2022.”

Play tennis and be at war

At first it was difficult for Lyudmyla to play tennis. When she arrived in Indian Wells, California, she struggled to reconcile the peace she saw on the ground with the war being waged against her home.

“My first day there, this tennis center was shocking. I was shocked how people can still laugh. They were laughing, just living a normal life,” Lyudmyla said. “I didn’t understand how it was possible because my mind was still there.”

Yastremska also struggled to stay focused on the tennis court. Over time, playing has gotten easier, but most of his thoughts are still on Ukraine.

“Well, I’m not even going to lie to myself. It’s very difficult. I try to pretend that I’m strong enough and I can play and everything, but it’s not true. It’s very difficult” , she explained.

Savchuk describes it as a “parallel life”. When she looks around her, she sees people living normally but her heart remains in Ukraine where the war is raging.

Nadiia found some solace on the pitch, however. Playing tennis forces him to put his phone down for a few hours and distract himself from the constant news of the war in Ukraine.

Like Nadiia, Zavatska has also drawn some comfort from tennis. She is grateful to have the opportunity to play tennis, considering the dire situation in her home country.

Katarina Zavatska chats with her team after her loss to American Jessica Pegula in the first round of qualifying for the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup.

“Tennis is, for me, the only place where I feel alive, where I feel like I can live and I don’t think about the news. I don’t think about bad things. I only think about the ball , who I’m on the pitch, I’m just doing my job,” Zavatska said.

“It’s such a great chance to do this, to be able to have everything, which I have right now, every second to be able to play tennis. It’s just amazing. You know, how lucky after all, what lucky to be a tennis player.”

Find support on the ground

The players are doing everything they can on and off the pitch to support their families and friends in Ukraine. Zavatska uses the money she earns playing tennis to support her family because, at the moment, no one else has a job.

“It’s a lot of things. You have to, you have to pay the bills, you have to think of others, you have to help others,” she explained. “It’s not pressure, but it’s something I feel like I can do and what I do every day.”

Yastremska donated all of her prize money from her run at the Lyon Open to relief efforts in Ukraine and used her own charitable foundation for humanitarian aid. While Yastremska wants to go home and see her parents, she knows she can be more useful by using her platform as a tennis player.

“I know that because I’m a professional tennis player, I have more opportunities to talk about it. I have more opportunities to help out,” she said.

Katarina Zavatska returns a serve from Jessica Pegula during the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.

But Ukrainian players are certainly not alone in their efforts. Team USA showed their support for their opponents with a dinner Thursday before their first matches. During the dinner, the United States team presented each member of the Ukrainian team with a blanket decorated with the American and Ukrainian flags and the message: “We are with you”.

A month before the March 18 match, the USTA announced that 10% of ticket revenue from the event would be donated to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund by Global Giving and local event sponsors would also make donations.

On April 7, the USTA also announced that Billie Jean King would attend the match with partner Ilana Kloss. King and Kloss also donated $50,000 to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.

Finding strength in Ukraine

When war broke out, Nadiia and Zavatska were surprised and amazed by the power and unity they saw in their country and their people.

“Ukrainians are so strong right now. I mean, they are incredibly strong. I didn’t know this power existed,” Zavatska said.

The whole Ukrainian team is bolstered by the strength they see in their home country and that’s the one thing they want the world to know about the nation: their strength.

Ukrainian fans cheer during the match between Dayana Yastremska and Alison Riske in the first round of the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers on April 15, 2022 in Asheville, North Carolina.

“I thought I had always been scared, but comparing to these people [back in Ukraine], they are not afraid. They just go for everything. They are ready for anything,” Yastremska said.

“I’m very proud of everyone there, and I’m proud to be Ukrainian, proud of Ukraine, proud of everyone who fights for the country.”

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