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For tennis players, Billie Jean King Cup is sanctuary

ASHEVILLE, NC — 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 de ella was scheduled to join her de ella at her de ella 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 USA 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 de ella did relocate to her home base de ella in France, while many others are still in her hometown de ella.

“We live in two different realities,” Savchuk said. “How can I even have a cup of tea right now? My family is like it, 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.”

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