In Asheville, North Carolina, the Ukraine women’s tennis team is in the middle of a game against Team USA to qualify for the Billie Jean King Cup. 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, amazing atmosphere, amazing arena here. And on the other hand, people are dying every day,” Katarina Zavatska told CNN Sport.
Despite a valiant comeback from a 2-0 deficit, an impressive comeback fell just short as Team USA defeated Ukraine 3-2 in the deciding doubles game on Saturday.
Yastremska, ranked at No. 93 in the world, had beaten World No. 14 Jessica Pegula before Zavatska achieved even greater excitement as she defeated Shelby Rogers, who was 155 places above her, and Ukraine 2-2 equaled.
However, a 7-6(5) 6-3 double win for Pegula and Asia Muhammad over Kichenok and Yastremska saw the USA advance to the finals in November.
Less than three months ago, both Kichenok and Yastremska were far from the tennis court as they fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On February 25, Kitchenenok left Ukraine with her parents. She drove 31 straight hours from Kyiv to Chisinau, Moldova – a 500-mile drive.
“Honestly, I’ve never experienced such fear in my life. My body shook for two hours. I could not speak. It was really shocking. And yes, I couldn’t eat for a few days,” Kitchenenok told CNN. “Those days were like the most difficult in my life, I can say that for sure.”
Lyudmyla’s sister Nadiia had left Ukraine early to prepare for the Indian Wells Open and found out about the war on the news.
“I knew that my sister is there in Kyiv, my mother is there in Kyiv, my father is in Kyiv. And it was just – until they got to Moldova – just two days of hell,” Nadiia told CNN Sport. “I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like it. This fear is difficult to express. She tore me apart I had panic attacks all the time.”
Yastremska crossed the Danube from Izmail to Romania with her younger sister on the same day the Kichenoks left Kyiv. But unlike Lyudmyla, the Yastremska sisters had to leave their parents behind.
“That day I will remember for the rest of my life when I left, especially when we crossed the border,” Yastremska told CNN. “You see your parents on the other side of the river and you just didn’t realize until the end how that happened, how these things can happen in 2022.”
Play tennis and wage war
At first it was difficult for Lyudmyla to play tennis. Arriving in Indian Wells, California, she struggled to reconcile the peace she saw on the square with the war being fought at her home.
“My first day on site, this tennis center was shocking. I was shocked how people can still laugh. They laughed and just lived a normal life,” said Lyudmyla. “I didn’t understand how that was possible because my mind was still there.”
Yastremska is also struggling to focus on the tennis court. Playing has become easier over time, but most thoughts are still with Ukraine.
“Well, I’m not even going to lie to myself. It’s very hard. I try to pretend I’m pretty strong and I can play and stuff, but it’s not true. It’s very difficult,” she explained.
Savchuk describes it as a “parallel life”. Looking around, she sees people living normally, but her heart remains in Ukraine, where war rages on.
However, Nadiia has found some solace on the pitch. Playing tennis forces her to put down her phone for a few hours and distract herself from the constant news about the war in Ukraine.
Like Nadiia, Zavatska has also drawn some solace from tennis. She is grateful for the opportunity to play tennis given the dire situation in her home country.
“Tennis for me is the only place where I feel alive, where I feel like I can live and where I don’t think about the news. I don’t think about bad things. I’m just thinking about the ball, that I’m on the pitch, that I’m just doing my job,” Zavatska said.
“It’s such a great opportunity to do this, to be able to have everything I have right now, to be able to play tennis every second. It’s just amazing. You know what an opportunity, what an opportunity to be a tennis player .”
find support on the field
The players do 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 nobody else has a job at the moment.
“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 aid efforts in Ukraine and uses her own charitable foundation for humanitarian aid. While Yastremska wants to go home and see her parents, she knows that as a tennis player, she can be more helpful if she uses her platform.
“I know that as a professional tennis player I have more opportunities to talk about it. I have more opportunities to help,” she said.
But the Ukrainian players are certainly not alone in their efforts. Team USA showed their support for their opponents with a Thursday dinner before the first games. At dinner, Team USA gave each member of the Ukraine team a blanket adorned with both the US and Ukrainian flags and the message: “We stand by you.”
A month before the March 18 game, the USTA announced that 10% of ticket sales from the event would be donated by Global Giving to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund and that local sponsors of the event would also make donations.
On April 7, the USTA also announced that Billie Jean King will be attending the match along with her partner Ilana Kloss. King and Kloss also donated $50,000 to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
Find strength in Ukraine
When war broke out, both Nadiia and Zavatska were surprised and amazed at the power and unity they saw in their country and people.
“The people of Ukraine are so strong right now. I mean, they’re incredibly strong. I didn’t know that power existed,” Zavatska said.
The entire Ukrainian team is empowered by the strength they see in their home country and that is the only thing they wish to share about the nation with the world: their strength.
“I thought I was always afraid, but compared to these people [back in Ukraine], they are not afraid. They go for everything. They are prepared for anything,” said Yastremska.
“I’m very proud of everyone there and I’m proud to be Ukrainian, proud of Ukraine, proud of everyone out there fighting for the country.”