US-Ukraine match at Billie Jean King Cup should bring out best of international competition

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Katarina Zavatska never could have imagined that something as simple as eating a raspberry under a blue sky at her apartment in the south of France would give her a feeling of indescribable guilt. She never envisioned a life where turning on the news would fill her with so much rage that some days she isn’t sure where to put it.

But the 22-year-old professional tennis player has come to accept over the last seven weeks of war and terror in her home country that she does not have much of a choice. So when she receives the text every morning from her father in Ukraine to let her know he’s safe, Zavatska gets out of bed so that she can train, get ready for tournaments and support her family in the best way she can.

“Nobody wants to adapt to the situation, but we have to live,” she said. “And the tennis court is the only place where I feel alive, that I can live because I can focus on the yellow ball. I think I have found this balance. But some days, when you read some news, it’s very tough.”

Perhaps Friday will be one of those times where Zavatska can put everything aside for two or three hours and play world-class tennis. Or maybe she’ll be up all night like she was before a recent match after reading about the atrocities committed by the Russian military in Bucha. It’s impossible to know what any day will bring.

But that is also what makes this weekend’s Billie Jean King Cup qualifier here between the U.S. and Ukraine a unique sporting event, where the competitive aspect has become secondary to the experience of the visiting team.

Known as the Federation Cup or Fed Cup until its name was changed in 2020, this tournament is no different from most international sporting events where patriotism comes to the forefront, sometimes to the point of hostility for teams competing on foreign soil. And from a tennis standpoint, the stakes are high: The winning team in a series of five matches that take place Sunday and Saturday will advance to the finals this fall.

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 last year.
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 last year.

But for the U.S. team, headlined by world No. 14 Jessica Pegula and former top-20 player Alison Riske this weekend, it is impossible in this circumstance to see the Ukranians as rivals. In fact, when the teams arrived on Tuesday, they came together for an informal dinner where the Americans presented them with custom blankets with the U.S. and Ukraine flags joined together and the words “We Stand With You” running across the top. At an event where the teams are kept mostly separate in the lead-up to competition, it was an unusual show of hospitality.

“They’re going through something really hard, but it’s also nice just to be normal for them,” said Pegula, who will play Zavatska in singles on Friday. “What they’re dealing with, I can’t quite imagine. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to really understand that.”

It’s hard to imagine any sport has seen dynamics between players change as dramatically as tennis over the last two months. Nationality might matter at the Olympics or events like the Billie Jean King Cup, but being in the same locker room week to week at tournaments all over the world or training at the same academy in the offseason has traditionally transcended politics and borders.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed that, perhaps irrevocably, as both countries have a strong presence on both the men’s and women’s tours. For instance, Zavatska said that the number of Russian players she considered friends who reached out to her since the war began can now be counted on one hand. The others she will keep her distance from when she sees them at tournaments in the future.

“It’s a horrible situation,” Ukrainian team captain Olga Savchuk said. “I think for all of us, the relationship changed. I’m very social. I have a lot of friends on the tour, from Russia as well. A few of them texted me when it started. I’m broken about it. I don’t know how now it can go forward with them.”

Tennis, for the most part, has thus far declined to impose significant sanctions on Russian players. The ITF banned the Russian and Belarussian teams from the Billie Jean King Cup and the Davis Cup, but the pro tours have only gone as far as remove those national flags next to players’ names.

In many ways, that makes sense. Would it be fair to punish reigning U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev or women’s No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus for government decisions they had nothing to do with? And if that’s the route tennis took, what kind of slippery slope might that create – even potentially for American pro athletes?

At the same time, when you hear their stories and what they’re dealing with at home, you can understand why some Ukranian players like No. 53-ranked Marta Kostyuk (who is injured and unable to compete this weekend) have called for Russians and Belarusians to be banned.

While some Russian players may be silently horrified by what their country is doing, the Ukranians are dealing with a horror that impacts every hour of their lives. Families are in danger. Lifelong friends are fighting on the front lines. Savchuk has no idea whether her home in Kyiv is still standing and no way to find out.

And yet, the only thing they can do to help is play tennis, a sport where even a small lapse in mental focus can be crushing.

“To have a normal life here, it feels bad,” she said. “I feel constantly, like, why am I not there? Of course, I’m lucky not to be there. But then I realize that what I’m doing, continuing to work and help them financially, that’s the best way. All our girls are doing the same. They have to support their families who lost jobs or are struggling. That’s the way, so we have to focus on the game. We ask them not to check the news maybe for a few days because it’s really hard. But it’s always in our heads, always in our minds.”

They hope this weekend will help bring some sliver of joy to Ukraine, where three networks across the country will broadcast the matches. But it’s also a competition, which means the same joys and disappointments they’ve felt their entire careers.

And with this shock to their lives still so new, it’s natural for players to wonder how to feel about that. Right now, Zavatska has her mother, her grandmother and two other relatives staying at her place in France. She yearns to be with them, to grieve with them. At first, she thought it was crazy to come to the U.S. and play tournaments.

“But time started to go and the war continued and what could I do – sit and do nothing? No, it’s not the way,” she said. “Playing for my country is something amazing, it’s what I can do right now in this situation.”

Regardless of the results, there will be no better tribute to that notion than playing here this weekend, where Ukraine will be honored and respected unlike any foreign team ever before.

“We’re not feeling we’re playing against them this weekend,” said Lyudmyla Kichenok, who will be playing doubles with her sister Nadiia. “We’re feeling we’re playing with them.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US-Ukraine match at Billie Jean King Cup about much more than tennis