Ukraine’s tennis players are juggling matches, the war is raging at home

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ASHEVILLE, NC – When Ukrainian women’s tennis player Katarina Zavatska first learned that Russia had invaded her homeland, she was unable to pick up a racket for more than a week.

Every waking second, she said her thoughts were engrossed in the security of her family back home in Ukraine.

With the Russia-Ukraine war now in its seventh week, Zavatska has come to terms with the “guilt” she first felt over playing a game while her family lived in constant fear and danger.

She believes it is her duty to keep playing tennis.

“What I can do is play tournaments to make money, to send them to my family to help them, because no one has a job right now in my family.” Zavatska said Tuesday. “Everyone is just at home. They have nothing to do to earn.”

Zavatska and teammates Dayana Yastremska, and Lyudmyla and Nadiia Kichenok will represent Ukraine this weekend in Asheville, North Carolina against the third-seeded United States in the qualifying round for the Billie Jean King Cup – formerly known as the Fed Cup and the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup.

At the beginning of the war, Zavatska made phone calls every 30 minutes, worry engulfing her as she tried to prepare for tennis tournaments in the United States.

“Every day I call my parents, my family, to ask them if they are alive,” Zavatska said. “It seems like very harsh, rude. But it’s true. That’s the reality right now.”

Russia first invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The Associated Press on Saturday that he is committed to pushing for peace despite Russian attacks on civilians. Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, said on Monday that more than 10,000 civilians had died in the Russian siege of his city, and the death toll could exceed 20,000.

The 22-year-old Zavatska said her father was originally scheduled to travel with her to tennis tournaments before the war began.

Instead, his focus shifted to moving Zavatska’s mother and grandmother and other female family members to a safe haven in France, where she rents an apartment and trains during the low season. But he stays in Rivne, Ukraine with male members of the family to defend the country.

“For women to leave without their husband, it’s very hard,” Zavatska said. “My cousin, for example, she’s pregnant. I have my niece, she is almost 5 years old. It’s impossible to be alone in that kind of situation because all the men have to stay. “

Meanwhile, Zavatska is fighting his own mental battle to stay focused on tennis.

“The first week (of the war) it was hard to do anything,” Zavatska said. “Surrounded by people listening to music, laughing, living, talking – it was impossible. I understand people have to live, but …”

Ukrainian team captain Olga Savchuk said most of her family live underground in a shelter in Ukraine while the war rages on.

She described her feelings “beyond what can be explained and imagined.”

“It’s like we live in two different realities,” Savchuk said. “Here we are, of course, we must continue to support our families. (But) sometimes like having food, I think of my grandfather and aunt, who are in bombely now. How can I even get a cup of tea right now? My family is like underground. I have goosebumps when I talk about it at all. ”

Every day except them, she said, is difficult.

But in some ways it has become the new normal.

“You wake up, the first thing you do is check if your family is okay, and check the news,” Savchuk said. “We do that pretty much non-stop.”

U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi said the Americans are trying to make the Ukrainian team feel as comfortable as possible this week in Asheville.

The teams have planned a dinner together on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, 10% of the ticket revenue for the weekend will be donated to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund by Global Giving through the “Tennis Players for Peace” initiative. Billie Jean King, who will attend Friday’s matches, and her partner Ilana Kloss are also donating $ 50,000 to Ukraine Relief, and other local sponsors in Asheville are also making donations.

“When you look at tennis, we really are a real family,” Rinaldi said. “We meet when things are difficult. … We are opponents on the field, but we are allies and friends off the field. We really love each other and we pull together when times get tough.”

The Ukrainian women have said that being on the tennis court has served a brief mental exposure from the reality of what is happening at home – the attacks, the bombs and the killing.

But when they leave the court, they are back on their phones again – calling home and checking on the family.

Zavatska and Savchuk said that although they would love to win this weekend and advance to the Billie Jean King Cup final and provide some inspiration and pride to the Ukrainian people, they both agreed that they would swap a victory with peace at home.

“Without thinking at all,” Savchuk said, shaking his head. “Without thinking at all.”

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