Ukraine-Russia War: Latest news and updates in real time
ASHEVILLE, NC – The Ukrainian comeback attempt had come shortly and Dayana Yastremska and her four teammates were preparing to pose for their last formal photograph for this Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.
The blue and yellow ribbon representing Ukraine that had been printed on the tennis court with a special permit was no longer visible, obscured by the red, white and blue streamers that fell to the ground during the celebrations of the Americans after their 3-2 victory Saturday evening.
The Ukrainians, with the help of US team captain Kathy Rinaldi, took out some of the streamers. But when another official started removing them entirely, Yastremska insisted they stay next to the tape for photography.
“They were in the colors of the United States and I wanted to leave this close to the Ukrainian colors,” he said in an interview. “Because I think it’s a good sign of the support we have here and a sign of peace. I wanted it to stay. “
It was that kind of week in Asheville: the symbolic gestures were more indelible than the results and the usual rules of engagement were rewritten in an attempt to smooth the edges of a national team competition.
“It was hard not to cry,” said Billie Jean King, 78, the American who once starred in this competition, formerly known as the Fed Cup long before it was renamed for her in 2020. She visited both teams on Friday. shortly before the start of the game. “I just hope that the Ukrainians had a moment of escape.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, United States Tennis Association officials offered to postpone this qualifying round match. The Ukrainians hesitated, but when it came time to book a hotel in Asheville, they admitted that they no longer had the money for the usual expenses of the visiting team.
“We said: ‘No problem, we will cover all local costs,'” said Stacey Allaster, chief executive of professional tennis at USTA, who also provided support staff to the delegation. “With the war, what’s going on is so horrible. What can an individual do? But we can all do small things and what we can do is provide a platform for Ukrainians to show that they are strong and fighting and have no intention of giving up. “
The posters around this town in the Blue Ridge Mountains didn’t say “USA vs. Ukraine”. They read: “The US hosts Ukraine”. At the exchange, the scoreboard displayed information on how to donate the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund and approximately $ 225,000 was raised in connection with the matches. The American fan team supported the individual players instead of chanting “Go USA!”
“We were just trying to find the right tone and balance,” Allaster said.
The Ukrainian players, who still have family members in their warring country, felt the work was done well: from the informal dinner for the teams at an Asheville restaurant on Tuesday night to the thrilling a cappella rendition of Julia Kashirets’ Ukrainian national anthem. which left members of both teams in tears just minutes before matches began.
“We came here to play not against the United States, but with the United States for Ukraine, and that’s how it seemed to me,” said Katarina Zavatska.
This was partly due to the numerous fans with Ukrainian ties and flags. Christina Dyakiv, 15, of William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach on Long Island, traveled to Asheville with her Ukrainian parents. Juliia Sherrod, a former Ukrainian junior player who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, made the two-hour trip on short notice.
“Every little victory counts in any field for Ukraine right now,” said Sherrod, 35, who also goes to Yulia. “In the grand scheme of things, a tennis match isn’t a big deal, but it still means a lot.”
In that sympathetic atmosphere, the Ukrainians almost managed the disturbance. After falling behind, 0-2, they won both singles matches in two sets on Friday and Saturday. Yastremska, a former top 25 player now ranked 93rd on the WTA Tour, has often overpowered number 14 Jessica Pegula. Most surprisingly, 201st place Zavatska defeated number 46 Shelby Rogers.
This meant the doubles match would be decisive and Pegula and Asia Muhammad, in her King’s Cup debut, scored a 7-6 (5) and 6-3 win over Yastremska and Lyudmyla Kichenok.
“All day we really felt the fighting spirit of Ukraine,” Rogers said. “It was really special to watch, but really hard to go against. I’m just so proud of my team for taking a step forward, having nerves of steel. “
The first set of the doubles match was reduced to very little. With Muhammad serving at 5-6, 30-30, the Americans struggled to win the longest and most spectacular rally of the match, and at 5-5 in the tiebreak, Kichenok’s full shot hit the top of the ranking tape.
“He wanted to take a little risk,” said Yastremska, making a small space between his right thumb and index finger. “That’s right, on the net!”
The win qualified the Americans for the 12-team King’s Cup final in November, but the Ukrainians aren’t necessarily eliminated. A wild card slot is available, and depending on the country selected to host the finals, it may be available for Ukraine.
A full Ukrainian team could be formidable: No. 25 Elina Svitolina and n. 53 Marta Kostyuk, the two tallest singles players in the country, missed this match due to injuries and personal problems.
“I don’t want to be arrogant, but maybe we deserve it,” said Zavatska.
Russia won the King’s Cup last year before being excluded from this year’s competition due to the invasion. Olga Savchuk, captain of the Ukrainian team in Asheville, believes tennis should take the next step and ban Russian players from individual events as well, which Wimbledon is considering.
“Why does someone who works at McDonald’s in Russia lose their job due to sanctions and tennis players are an exception?” Savchuk said.
Zavatska, 22, who lives in the south of France, believes that Russians should take responsibility and “also feel discomfort, as long as people and children die in Ukraine”. She said some Russian and Belarusian players had told her that the news of the atrocities from Ukraine was “false”.
The guilt that some players felt in the first month for being safe while other Ukrainians were in such danger was overcome by the belief that they could be sporting ambassadors.
“With people watching us at home on TV, you want them to take a couple of hours to enjoy the tennis and to see that some Ukrainian girls are also fighting for the country,” said Yastremska.
The Asheville arena, in size and design, reminded Savchuk and Yastremska of the place where the Ukrainian team played their home games in Kharkiv, which was heavily damaged by Russian bombing.
Savchuk, who now lives in London, was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region and her father remains in Donetsk. “She has decided to stay because she is home,” said Savchuk, who said her relatives spent long periods in air-raid shelters.
Kichenok fled the country after the war began and needed 31 hours to travel from Kiev to Moldova with her parents. Her twin, Nadiia, also part of the Ukrainian team, left Kiev shortly before the invasion of Russia, traveling to California with her husband.
“It was two days of hell for me until they got to a safe place,” Nadiia said of her family. “I had constant panic attacks. I’ve never experienced anything like it, like 40 minutes in which your body is shaking and you don’t know what to do besides taking deep breaths. “
The Kichenok’s father, who is 64, has since returned to Ukraine and has been trying to volunteer for the army despite exceeding the age limit.
“They told him, ‘Grandpa, come home,'” said Nadiia Kichenok. “’We have too many people here. We will call you when we need you. ‘”
Yastremska, 21, fled her hometown Odesa with her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, and entered Romania after greeting her parents on the Ukrainian bank of the Danube. The sisters traveled together on tour for nearly two months while their parents stayed in Odesa, where one of their duties was to organize relief efforts through the Yastremska charitable foundation.
Unable to return home, the Yastremska sisters are left without a fixed training base, but will head close to Madrid to prepare for the season on clay. The Kichenok twins will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, for a tournament, and Zavatska will return to Cannes, France, where she will share her small apartment with her mother and other relatives who fled Ukraine.
After a week of union and one last night of karaoke with the Americans on Saturday, the Ukrainians will move on, but with the hope that Asheville and the rest of the world don’t move too fast.
“I don’t want people to get used to this pain we’re experiencing,” said Nadiia Kichenok. “We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want them to remain strong with us, fighting for freedom and humanity. “