Wearing a shirt decorated with a heart of shape, Lyudmyla Kichenok practiced with her teammate Dayana Yastremska in an empty arena under the watchful eyes of their captain Olga Savchuk on Thursday.
In Asheville, North Carolina, the Ukrainian women’s tennis team is the winner of the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers for Team USA. In the meantime, bombs rain down on their hometowns on war rages.
“I feel like we have two different realities right now. The tennis court, an amazing atmosphere, amazing arena here. And then on the other side, we have people dying every day, ”Katarina Zavatska told CNN Sport.
Instead of a valiant recovery from 2-0 down, a stunning fightback fell just short as Team USA edged Ukraine’s deciding doubles game to take the tie 3-2 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 at Draw Ukraine level 2-2.
However, a 7-6 (5) 6-3 doubles victory over Pegula and Asia Muhammad saw Kichenok and Yastremska in the US Progress to the Finals in November.
Less than three months ago, both Kichenok and Yastremska were far from the tennis court, fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On February 25, her parents with Kichenok left Ukraine. She drove 31 hours straight from Kyiv to Chisinau, Moldova – a 500-mile trip.
“Honestly, I’ve never experienced such a fear in my life. My body was two hours for shaking. I couldn’t talk. Like, it was really shocking. And yeah, a couple days I couldn’t eat anything, ”Kichenok told CNN. “Those are the most difficult in my life, I can say for sure.”
Lyudmyla’s sister, Nadiia, had news of the war on Open and Found Indian Wells for the Left Ukraine early.
“I knew my sister’s in Kyiv, my mother was in Kyiv, my dad was in Kyiv. And it was just – until they came to Moldova – just two days of hell, ”Nadiia told CNN Sport. “I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like that. This fear is just hard to express. It was pulling me apart. I had constant panic attacks. ”
Yastremska crossed the Danube River into Romania with Izmail and her younger sister the same day Kichenoks left Kyiv. But unlike Lyudmyla, the Yastremska sisters had to leave their parents behind.
“That day I’m going to remember all my life when I was out, 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 of the year, how these things can happen in 2022.”
At first, it was hard for Lyudmyla to play tennis. When she arrived in Indian Wells, California, she struggled to reconcile the peace she had seen with the court and her home in Waged.
“My first day on the site, that 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. My mind was still there.”
Yastremska has also struggled with the tennis court on her focus. Over time, playing has gotten easier, but most of her thoughts are still with Ukraine.
“Well, I’m not going to lie to myself. It’s very hard. I’m pretty strong and like I can play and stuff, but it’s not true. It’s very hard, ”she explained.
Savchuk describes it as a “parallel life.” When she looks around, she sees people living but her heart remains in Ukraine where war rages.
Nadiia has found some solace on the court though. Playing tennis forces put her phone down for a couple hours and distract herself from the constant news of war in Ukraine.
Like Nadiia, Zavatska has also gotten some comfort from tennis. She’s grateful for the opportunity to play tennis and her home country in a dire situation.
“Tennis is, for me, the only place where I feel alive, where I can live and that I don’t think about. Bad things I don’t think about. “I only think about the ball, that’s the court I am on, that is just my job,” Zavatska said.
“It’s such a big chance to do this, to be able to do everything, to be able to play every second. It’s just amazing. You know, after a chance, what a chance to be a tennis player. ”
The players are doing everything they can on and off the court to support their families and friends in Ukraine. Zavatska uses the money she earns playing tennis to support her family, right now, no one else has a job.
“It’s a lot of things. You have to pay, you have to pay the bills, you have to think about others, you have to help others, ”she explained. “It’s not a pressure, but it’s something I feel like I can do and what I’m doing every day.”
Yastremska donated all her prize money from her run to the Lyon Open to relief efforts in Ukraine and has been using her own charitable foundation for humanitarian aid. While Yastremska wants to go home and see her parents, she knows she can be more helpful 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, ”she said.
But the end players are not alone in their endeavors. Team USA showed their support for their first match of the week ahead of a dinner with their opponents. At the dinner, Team USA gifted each member of the Ukrainian squad with a blanket decorated with both US and Ukrainian flags and the message: “We stand with you.”
A month ahead of the match on March 18, the USTA announced that 10% of the ticket revenue from the event will be donated to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund by the Global Giving and the local sponsors of the event.
On April 7, the USTA also announced that Billie Jean King will attend the match with her partner Ilana Kloss. King and Kloss have also made a $ 50,000 donation to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
When the war broke out, both Nadia and Zavatska were seen and amazed by the power and unity they saw in their country and their people.
“People in Ukraine, they’re so strong right now. I mean, they’re amazingly strong. I didn’t know that this power exists, ”Zavatska said.
The entire Ukrainian team is empowered by the strength they see in their home country and the one thing they want to know about the world: its strength.
“I thought I always had a fear, but those people who were comparing [back in Ukraine], they don’t have a fear. They go for everything. They’re ready for everything, ”said Yastremska.
“I’m very proud of everybody out there, I’m proud of Ukraine, proud of everybody who’s out there fighting for the country.”