Ukrainian Tennis Stars Play Billie Jean King Cup While War Rages at Home

Dayana Yastremska arose one night in February from her bed in Odessa Ukraine, hearing the explosions rippling in her body. “You kind of think it’s a dream,” she tells TIME. “Then you realize it’s reality.” Russia had begun its invasion of her country. A day later Yastremska, the 93rd-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, and her sister Ivanna, a junior player, hugged their father goodbye in Izmail, where a boat was waiting to take the sisters across the Danube river to Romania. The sisters boarded an airplane to France and were then taken to Bucharest.

“It was very scary,” says Yastremska, 21. “You don’t know the plans. It is necessary to abandon your loved ones. Your home must be left. You don’t know when you’re going to go back. You don’t know when you’re going to see your parents and how it’s going to end. It was the most emotional day of my life.”

Yastremska uses WhatsApp to keep in touch with her family as much as possible. However, her well-being back home in Odessa does not escape her thoughts. Tennis might seem second-class, but Yastremska, her Ukrainian friends, will continue to play; Ukraine takes on the United States in an Asheville (N.C.) qualifying event for Bille Jean King Cup. The Billie Jean King Cup is the largest annual international team competition in women’s sports: the event culminates in the November finals, held this year in Prague.

The Ukrainian women know they’re competing this weekend for so much more than just themselves. “It’s quite an amazing opportunity for us to come together and play for the country,” says Olga Savchuk, captain of the Ukraine team. Savchuk recalls that Grammy, her aunt, and grandfather spent around 11 days in a shelter close to Kyiv. “It seems really small, but that’s what we do,” says Savchuk. “To give a little hope and a little attention away from the war, for just a few hours. I know it sounds ridiculous, but hopefully, it will give them something.”

Tennis diplomacy

This weekend’s event will double as a fundraiser for Ukraine. Billie Jean King with Ilana Kross as her partner are donating $50,000 for the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. BNP Paribas, title sponsor, has match that $50,000 donation. United States Tennis Association will donate 10% of all ticket profits to Ukraine Relief.

At the event, local Asheville artist Andrea Kulish Wilhelm, a first-generation Ukrainian American, will be selling customized “Stand with Ukraine” stickers, as well as Pysanky eggs, which are Ukrainian Easter eggs decorated with beeswax and dyes. Another artist will be selling yellow and blue scarves and donating her profits to the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America.

It has also been a shift in the tone of the matches. Usually, local fans would be encouraged to wrap themselves in “Team USA” patriotism. The organizers now have a new marketing strategy. “We shifted the language from USA versus Ukraine to USA hosts Ukraine,” says Megan Rose, managing director, major events for the USTA. “We felt it was important to kind of have a feeling of hospitality, and not so much that we were against one another.” The American players even treated their Ukrainian opponents to a dinner in Asheville this week; Ukrainian team members each received a gift from the Americans, a blanket with the U.S. and Ukraine flags. The inscription says: “We Stand With You.”

Send a message

The Ukrainians appreciated the gesture, another reminder that they’re playing in surreal times. The players are quick to glance at their phones between practice, checking the headlines and contacting family members back home. “It kills you physically,” says Ukraine player Katarina Zavatska. “Even though you’re not in Ukraine, you’re worried every day, every second for your family, all the people in Ukraine. The court was where I was most comfortable. I didn’t have to think about anything. It’s the most amazing thing.”

The Russian and Belarusian teams have been suspended from the Billie Jean King Cup competition this year; Russia, as last year’s champion, had already qualified for the finals. Wimbledon could potentially suspend Russian world number one players. 2 Daniil Medvedev, the reigning U.S. Open champ, if they don’t speak out against Vladimir Putin and the war. Savchuk is one of those who supports these strict measures. “My strong position is, if there are sanctions, there have to be sanctions on everyone,” says Savchuk. “Russia has to be isolated. Consider our kids, and our families. People dying. Children and women. Russian tennis players at least have to feel uncomfortable.”

Sports can also help keep the war—and the suffering of the Ukrainian people—top of mind. “I want people to know about the situation and not forget about it,” says Savchuk. “These days, in the news, it’s maybe a few weeks people talk about it, and feel sorry about it then people forget and get on with their lives. This is perfectly normal. It’s very human. I get it. But I’m scared and I hope that we try to send a message and talk about our country and more and more people take time and actually investigate the situation.”

Her message for Putin: “Simple and straight, just leave our country. And look into the eyes of your own kids and your family and ask yourself, ‘are you still doing the right thing?’”

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