ASHEVILLE, N.C. — For the past six-and-a-half weeks, the only thing offering 22-year-old Ukrainian Katarina Zavatska a respite from thinking about the terrifying circumstances of her home country has been focusing on hitting the fuzzy yellow ball in front of her.
Zavatska, ranked the No. 201 tennis player in the world, was born in Lutsk, Ukraine, where much of her extended family remain. Her dad was scheduled to join her at her apartment in France beginning Feb. 24 and subsequently accompany her to tournaments, but Russia’s bombings began that day.
Ever since, the lives of Zavatska and countless other Ukrainians have become a hellish cycle of daily phone calls back home to confirm the safety and whereabouts of their loved ones, refreshing news sites for updates from reporters on the ground all while attempting to continue with the routines of their much more stable lives.
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This week, Asheville is serving as the latest sanctuary for Zavatska and the rest of the four-member team of Ukrainians who will face Team U.S.A. in a Billie Jean King Cup qualifying tie at Harrah’s Cherokee Center on Friday and Saturday, an event that will raise money for Ukrainian relief efforts.
“It’s very tough,” Zavatska said at a press conference Tuesday. “There is no one day that we don’t think about it. … But on the other side, we just have to live. For example me, what I can do is to play tournaments, to earn money, to send to my family to help them.”
Some players, including BJK Cup team member Dayana Yastremska, had to flee the country themselves after the beginning of the war. Yastremska (the No. 93 player in the world) and her 15-year-old sister took a small boat from Ukraine to Romania, and then continued along to Lyon, France, where she rejoined the professional tennis tour, she told ESPN.
As they’ve bounced across the world for tournaments each week, the Ukrainians on the WTA circuit have kept tabs on their families.
Ukrainian coach and BJK team captain Olga Savchuk has relatives in a bomb shelter; some of Zavatska’s family did relocate to her home base in France, while many others are still in her hometown.
“We live in two different realities,” Savchuk said. “How can I even have a cup of tea right now? My family is like, underground. I have goosebumps when I even talk about it.”
From Lyon, to Indian Wells, to Bogota, to Charleston and wherever else the players have found themselves playing since the war began, they have continued to focus on one of the few things they have control over, fighting to win points and matches as they’ve done since they were children.
“Day-by-day for me, the court was the only place where I could live my life, because there was a ball, there was a racquet, and I just have to hit it and not think about it,” Zavatska said. “It’s the most amazing thing, what a chance to play tennis and to be on the court, to be able to do something like that.”
Even in more ordinary times, a professional tennis player’s life is nomadic and often isolated. Only the players at the very top of the sport can afford to bring multiple team members along with them to every tournament they play, and that’s of little use once the match starts.
Team events such as the BJK Cup, then, can be welcome changes for all players, and are especially so for the Ukrainians this week.
“It will be something very special, I would say,” Savchuk said. “I’m sure we’re going to have, also, support from American people as well, because we feel that even outside of tennis. … We are proud to have this chance and opportunity.”
Tennis fans, players and organizations have rallied for Ukraine across the world in a variety of ways, and that will continue over the weekend in Asheville.
Billie Jean King is personally donating $50,000 to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, the United States Tennis Association is donating 10% of ticket revenue from the event, and local sponsors have also pledged donations based on ticket sales.
Team USA and the Ukrainians scheduled a group dinner for Tuesday night, an event traditionally organized formally by the International Tennis Federation but that has been left off the official BJK Cup schedules since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Very kind, very generous and very nice from them to be welcomed like this,” Zavatska said. “Have a dinner together. … Just to be like normal people.”
At times, that relative sense of normalcy has been a cause of guilt for the Ukrainians continuing the tennis grind halfway across the world from loved ones whose lives have been completely upended by the violence.
But the players have made an uneasy peace with their current arrangement, and this week, Asheville will serve as the backdrop to their latest quest: qualify for the BJK Cup finals as a country.
“It kills you physically. Even though you’re not in Ukraine, you’re worried every day, every second for your family, all the people in Ukraine,” Zavatska said. “For me, being on court was a little bit, like, unreal, you know? Now … when I’m getting a bit maybe like stressed on the court or something, I’m thinking about, Why would I be stressed? There is so much more going on, so it’s just a tennis match.
“Yeah, just every day I just keep my focus on this ball, yellow ball, and that’s it. Yeah, it’s only like that every day.”