Ukraine Tennis Players Juggle Matches, War Raging At Home

FILE - Katarina Zavatska of Ukraine returns the ball to Anastasia Gasanova of Russia during the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy-2021 tennis tournament match in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Zavatska will be competing for Ukraine this weekend in the Billie Jean King Cup in Asheville, North Carolina against the USA. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)
FILE - Katarina Zavatska of Ukraine returns the ball to Anastasia Gasanova of Russia during the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy-2021 tennis tournament match in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Zavatska will be competing for Ukraine this weekend in the Billie Jean King Cup in Asheville, North Carolina against the USA. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — 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 consumed with the safety of her family back home in Ukraine.

With the Russia-Ukraine War now in its seventh week, Zavatska has come to grips with the “guilt” she first felt about about 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 to play tournaments to earn money, to send it to my family to help them because nobody has a job right now in my family,” Zavatska said Tuesday. “Everybody is just 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 of the Billie Jean King Cup — formerly known as the Fed Cup and the women’s equivalent to the Davis Cup.

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

“Every day I’m calling to my parents, my family, to ask them if they’re alive,” Zavatska said. “It seems like very tough, rude. But it’s true. This is the reality right now.”

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

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

That never happened.

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 offseason. But he remains in Rivne, Ukraine, along with male members of the family, to defend the country.

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

In the meantime, Zavatska is fighting her own mental battle to remain focused on tennis.

“The first week (of the war) it was tough to do anything," Zavatska said. "Surrounded by people who listen to music, who laugh, who live, who talk — it was impossible. I understand people have to live, but...”

Ukrainian team captain Olga Savchuk said most of her family is living underground in a bomb shelter in Ukraine as the war rages on.

She described her emotions “beyond explainable and imaginable.”

“It’s like we live in two different realities,” Savchuk said. “Here we are, of course, we have to continue to support our families. (But) sometimes just like having food, I’m thinking about my grandpa and aunt who are in bomb shelter now. How I can even have a cup of tea right now? My family is, like, underground. I have goosebumps when I even talk about it."

Every day apart from them, she said, is difficult.

But in some ways it has become the new normal.

“You wake up, first thing you do is check to see if your family is okay, and check the news," Savchuk said. "We do that basically non-stop."

USA 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 Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, 10% of the ticket revenue for the weekend is being 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 the Ukraine Relief, and other local sponsors in Asheville are also making donations.

“When you look at tennis, we’re really a true family,” Rinaldi said. “We come together when things are tough. ... We’re opponents on the court, but we’re allies and friends off the court. We really do care for each other and we pull together when times get tough.”

The Ukrainian women have said that being on the tennis court has served a short mental reprieve from the reality of what is happening back home — the attacks, the bombs and the killing.

But once they leave the court, they're back on their phones again — calling home and checking on family.

Zavatska and Savchuk said that while they would love to win this weekend and advance to the Billie Jean King Cup finals and provide some inspiration and pride to the Ukrainian people, both agreed that they'd trade a victory for peace back home.

“Without even thinking,” Savchuk said, shaking her head. ”Without even thinking."

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