ASHEVILLE, NC — The Ukrainian comeback attempt had fizzled out, and Dayana Yastremska and her four teammates prepared to pose for their last official photo during this Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.
The blue and yellow ribbon representing Ukraine that had been stencilled on the tennis court by special permission was no longer visible, obscured by the red, white and blue streamers that had fallen to the ground as part of the celebration of the Americans after their 3-2. Victory Saturday night.
The Ukrainians, with the help of Team USA captain Kathy Rinaldi, cleared some of the banners. But as another official began to remove them completely, Yastremska insisted that they remain next to the tape for the photograph.
“They were in United States colors, and I wanted to keep that close to Ukrainian colors,” she 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 blur the contours of a national team competition.
“It was hard not to cry,” said Billie Jean King, 78, the American who once played in the competition, which was once known as the Fed Cup long before it was renamed for her in 2020. She visited both teams on Friday shortly. before the game started. “I just hope the Ukrainians had a breakout moment.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, United States Tennis Association officials offered to postpone this match from the qualifying round. The Ukrainians balked, but when it came time to book hotels in Asheville, they admitted they had run out of money for the usual visiting team expenses.
“We said, ‘No problem, we’ll cover all your local costs,'” said Stacey Allaster, general manager of professional tennis at the USTA, who also provided support staff to the delegation. “With the war, it’s so horrible what’s happening. What can any individual do? But we can all do small things, and what we can do is provide a platform for Ukrainians to demonstrate that they are strong and they are fighting and they will not give up.
Posters around this town in the Blue Ridge Mountains did not read “United States against Ukraine”. They read: “The United States welcomes Ukraine”. During the changes, the scoreboard displayed information on how to donate to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, and approximately $225,000 was raised through the matches. The USA cheer squad supported individual players instead of chanting “Go USA!”
“We were just trying to find the right tone and balance,” Allaster said.
The Ukrainian players, all of whom still have family members in their beleaguered country, felt a job well done: from the informal dinner for the teams at an Asheville restaurant on Tuesday night to the moving a cappella rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem by Julia Kashirets that left members of both teams in tears minutes before the games started.
“We came here to play not against the United States, but with the United States for Ukraine, and that’s how I felt,” said Katarina Zavatska.
This was partly because of the many fans with Ukrainian connections and flags. Christina Dyakiv, 15, of William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach on Long Island, traveled to Asheville with her Ukrainian-born parents. Juliia Sherrod, a former top Ukrainian junior player who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, made the two-hour trip on short notice.
“Every little victory matters in any area for Ukraine right now,” said Sherrod, 35, also known as Yulia. “Overall, a tennis match is not serious, but it still means a lot.”
In this atmosphere of support, the Ukrainians almost pulled off the surprise. After falling 0-2 on Friday, they won both singles matches on Saturday in straight sets. Yastremska, a former top-25 player now ranked 93rd on the WTA Tour, has often passed 14th-ranked Jessica Pegula. More surprisingly, Zavatska, 201st, beat 46th Shelby Rogers.
This meant the final doubles match would be decisive, and Pegula and Asia Muhammad, making their Copa del Rey debut, secured a 7-6(5), 6-3 victory over Yastremska and Lyudmyla Kichenok.
“All day we really felt the fighting spirit of Ukraine,” Rogers said. “It was really special to see, but really hard to face. I’m so proud of my team for taking the plunge, for having nerves of steel.
The first set of the doubles match ended in very little. With Muhammad serving at 5-6, 30-30, the Americans had to scramble to win the longest and most dramatic rally of the game, and at 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Kichenok’s passing shot hit the top of the game. tape.
“She wanted to take a little risk,” Yastremska said, making a small gap between her right thumb and index finger. “Just like that, in the net!”
The victory qualified the Americans for the 12-team King Cup final in November, but the Ukrainians are not necessarily eliminated. A wild card slot is available, and depending on the country selected to host the final, it could be available for Ukraine.
A full Ukrainian squad could be formidable: No.25 Elina Svitolina and No.53 Marta Kostyuk, the two highest-ranked singles players in the country, missed this match due to injuries and personal issues.
“I don’t want to be arrogant, but maybe we deserve it,” Zavatska said.
Russia won the King Cup last year before being kicked out of the competition this year due to the invasion. Olga Savchuk, the captain of the Ukrainian team in Asheville, believes that tennis must take the next step and also ban Russian players from individual events, which Wimbledon is considering.
“Why does someone who works at McDonald’s in Russia lose their job because of the sanctions and are tennis players exceptions?” said Savchuk.
Zavatska, 22, who lives in the south of France, believes Russians need to take responsibility and “feel just as uncomfortable, as long as people and children are dying in Ukraine”. She said some Russian and Belarusian players told her that news of atrocities coming out of Ukraine was “fake”.
The guilt some players felt in the first month of being safe when other Ukrainians were in such great danger has been replaced by the belief that they can be sporting ambassadors.
“With people watching us on TV, you want them to take a few hours to enjoy tennis and see that some Ukrainian girls are also fighting for the country,” Yastremska said.
The Asheville Arena, in size and design, reminded Savchuk and Yastremska of where the Ukrainian team played home games in Kharkiv, which was heavily damaged by Russian shelling.
Savchuk, now based in London, was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbass region and her father remains in Donetsk. “He decided to stay because this is his home,” said Savchuk, who said his relatives had spent long periods in bomb shelters.
Kichenok fled the country after the war started and needed 31 hours to travel from kyiv to Moldova with his parents. Her twin, Nadiia, who is also part of the Ukrainian team, left Kyiv just before the Russian invasion, 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 40 minutes where your body is shaking and you don’t know what to do but breathe deeply.
The Kichenoks’ father, who is 64, has since returned to Ukraine and tried to volunteer for the army despite being over the age limit.
“They said to him: ‘Grandfather, go home’”, says Nadiia Kichenok. “’We have too many people here. We will call you when we need you.
Yastremska, 21, fled her hometown of Odessa with her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, crossing into Romania after saying goodbye to their parents on the Ukrainian side of the Danube. The sisters have been traveling together on tour for nearly two months while their parents remain in Odessa, where one of their duties is to organize relief efforts through the Yastremska Charitable Foundation.
Unable to return home, the Yastremska sisters remain without a fixed training base, but they will head near Madrid to prepare for the clay court season. The Kichenok twins will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, for a tournament, and Zavatska will return to Cannes, France, where she shares her small apartment with her mother and other relatives who fled Ukraine.
After a week of socializing and a final 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 aren’t moving too fast.
“I don’t want people to get used to this grief we are going through,” 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.