ASHEVILLE, NC – Ukraine’s attempt to come back turned out to be very short, and Dayana Yastremska and her four teammates were getting ready to pose for the last official photo in qualifying for the Billie Jean King Cup.
The blue and yellow ribbon representing Ukraine, which had been carved on the tennis court with special permission, was no longer visible, obscured by red, white and blue streamers that fell to the ground in celebration of the Americans after their 3-2 victory on Saturday night.
The Ukrainians, with a little help from US captain Kathy Rinaldi, removed some of the streamers. But when another official began to remove them completely, Jastremska insisted that they remain with the ribbon for the photo.
“They were in the US colors, and I wanted to leave it close to the Ukrainian colors,” she said in an interview. “Because I think this is a good sign of the support we have received here and a sign of peace. I wanted it to stay. “
It was such a week in Asheville: the symbolic gestures were more indelible than the results, and the usual rules of engagement were rewritten in an attempt to blunt the edges of the national team competition.
“It was hard not to cry,” said Billie Jean King, a 78-year-old American who once played in what was previously known as the Fed Cup long before she was renamed her in 2020. She soon visited both teams on Friday. before the game starts. “I just hope the Ukrainians had a moment of escapism.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, US Tennis Association officials offered to postpone the qualifying round match. The Ukrainians objected, but when it was time to book hotels in Asheville, they admitted that they no longer had the money for the usual expenses of the visiting team.
“We said,” No problem, we’ll cover all local costs, “said Stacey Allaster, chief executive of professional tennis at USTA, which also provided support staff for the delegation. “With war, it’s so scary what’s going on. What can any man do? But we can all do little things, and what we can do is provide the Ukrainians with a platform to demonstrate that they are strong, they are fighting and are not going to quit. “
There was no sign “USA versus Ukraine” on the posters around this city in the Blue Mountains. They read: “The USA hosts Ukraine.” During the currency exchange, information on how to donate to the Crisis Aid Fund of Ukraine appeared on the scoreboard, and about $ 225,000 was raised in connection with the matches. The American team of fans supported individual players instead of chanting “Go USA!”
“We were just trying to find the right tone and balance,” Allaster said.
Ukrainian footballers, all of whom still have family members in their battered country, felt the job was done well: from an informal dinner for teams at the Asheville restaurant on Tuesday night to a touching a cappella of the Ukrainian national anthem by Julia Kashireta, who left behind the members both teams in tears a few minutes before the start of the matches.
“We came here to play not against the US, but against the US for Ukraine, and that’s how I felt,” said Katarina Zavatska.
In part, this was due to the numerous fans with Ukrainian connections and flags. 15-year-old Christina Dyakiv from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, Long Island, traveled to Asheville with her Ukrainian-born parents. Juliia Sherrod, a former top Ukrainian junior who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, made a two-hour ride in no time.
“At the moment, every tiny victory counts for Ukraine in every field,” said Sherrod, 35, who is also Julia. “In the grand scheme of things a tennis match is no big deal, but still means a lot.”
In this favorable atmosphere, the Ukrainians almost coped with their anxiety. After losing 0-2 on Friday, they won both singles matches on Saturday in equal sets. Yastremska, a former top 25th player who is currently 93rd in the WTA Tour, has often defeated Jessica Pegula 14th. More surprisingly, Zavatska, who finished 201st, defeated Shelby Rogers 46th.
This meant that the final doubles match would be decisive, with Pegula and Asia Muhammad having their debut in the King Cup with a 7: 6 (5), 6: 3 victory over Yastremska and Lyudmyla Kichenok.
“We really felt the fighting spirit in Ukraine all day,” said Rogers. “It was really special, but it was really hard to deal with. I’m just so proud of my team that I chose it with my nerves of steel. “
The first set of a doubles match came down to very little. When Muhammad served at 5-6, 30-30, the Americans had to fight to win the game’s longest, most spectacular rally, and with a 5-5 tiebreaker, Kichenok’s full pass made it to the top. tape.
“She wanted to take a chance,” said Yastremska, making a small space between her right thumb and index finger. “Just like that, online!”
The victory qualified the Americans to the final of 12 King Cup teams in November, but the Ukrainians are not necessarily dropped out. One wildcard slot is available and may be available for Ukraine depending on which country is selected to host the finals.
A fully strong Ukrainian team can be dangerous: 25. Elina Svitolina and 53. Marta Kostiuk, the two highest-ranked 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 Cup last year before being excluded from this year’s competition due to an invasion. Olga Savchuk, captain of the Ukrainian team at Asheville, believes that tennis must take the next step and exclude Russian players from individual competitions as well, as Wimbledon is considering.
“Why does someone who works at McDonald’s in Russia lose their job due to sanctions, and tennis players are the exception?” Sawczuk said.
Zavatska, 22, who lives in southern France, believes that the Russians must take responsibility and “also feel discomfort as long as people and children die in Ukraine.” She said some Russian and Belarusian players told her that the news of atrocities coming out of Ukraine was “fake”.
The guilt some players felt in the first month for being safe while other Ukrainians were so threatened has been replaced by the belief that they could be ambassadors for the sport.
“When people watch us at home on TV, you want them to spend a few hours playing tennis and seeing some Ukrainian girls also fighting for the country,” said Jastremska.
In terms of scale and design, the Arena in Asheville reminded Sawchuk and Jastremska of the place where the Ukrainian team played their home games in Kharkiv, which was badly damaged by Russian bombing.
Savchuk, now living in London, was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbass region, and her father remains in Donetsk. “He chose to stay because it’s home,” said Savchuk, who said her relatives spent long periods in bomb shelters.
Kichenok fled the country after the war broke out and needed 31 hours to travel with her parents from Kiev to Moldova. Her twin Nadiia, also part of the Ukrainian team, left Kyiv shortly before the Russian invasion, traveling with her husband to California.
“It was two days of hell for me before they got to a safe place,” Nadiia said of her family. “I had constant panic attacks. I’ve never experienced anything like this, for example for 40 minutes your body is shaking and you don’t know what to do except for deep breaths. “
The father of the Kichenok, who is 64 years old, returned to Ukraine and, despite exceeding the age limit, tried to volunteer for the army.
“They said to him, ‘Grandpa, come home,’ said Nadia Kichenok. “We have too many people here. We will call you when we need you. “
21-year-old Jastremska fled from Odessa, her hometown, with her 15-year-old sister Ivanna to Romania after saying goodbye to her parents on the Ukrainian side of the Danube. The sisters have been traveling together on a tour for almost two months, while their parents remain in Odesa, where one of their tasks was to organize humanitarian aid through the Yastremska charity foundation.
Unable to return home, the Yastremska sisters are left without a permanent training base, but head to Madrid to prepare for the clay court season. The Kichenok twins will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, for the tournament, and Zavatska will return to Cannes, France, where she shares her small apartment with her mother and other relatives who have fled Ukraine.
After a week of hanging out and the last night of karaoke with the Americans on Saturday, the Ukrainians will go further, but with the hope that Asheville and the world will not go too fast.
“I don’t want people to get used to the sadness we experience,” said Nadiia Kichenok. “We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want them to stay strong with us, fighting for freedom and humanity. “