Tennis player Dayana Yastremska flees Ukraine, arrives safely in France


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UKRAINIAN PRO TENNIS player Dayana Yastremska wrapped her arms around her father, tears running down her cheeks. She had to let go. A small boat was waiting to whisk her and her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, away. Her father had driven them from their home in Odessa, Ukraine, some 150 miles south to Izmail, a smaller city in the Danube Delta. Throughout their early-morning drive on Friday, a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, she saw the devastation the war already had wreaked. Smoke, buildings turned to rubble, an eerie quiet.

Her father parked the car in Izmail, and the family walked the last five minutes to the harbor, to the boat that would take Dayana and her sister to Romania. Their father kissed her forehead as she held onto two suitcases, her entire life packed haphazardly in them.

“I don’t know how this war will end, but you must take care of each other, and strive for your dreams, build your new life and always be together,” her father said to her. “Don’t worry about us, everything will be fine.”

In matching pink sweatpants, the sisters walked away from their parents, rolling their suitcases to the boat. When the boat’s engine whirred, they waved vigorously at their parents, at the country they were forced to leave behind, at everything they knew to be home.

“Is this a movie or is this real?” Yastremska thought over and over again.

A few days earlier, she laughed with her family during dinner and worried about her practice the next day. Today, she didn’t know if she would ever see her father again. Today, she didn’t know if she would have a country to return to.

Now, Yastremska is safe in Lyon, France, and, despite the horror of the past few days, she plans to compete in the Lyon Open starting Monday. The world No. 121, who was ranked as high as No. 21 in January 2020, has won three WTA titles in her career.

Nine Ukrainian women are among the top 300 players on the WTA Tour; three Ukrainian men are ranked in the ATP Tour’s top 300.

World No. 15, Elina Svitolina, who also is from Odessa and currently resides in London, posted on her social media. “My heart is bleeding… Another sleepless and terrifying night for Ukrainian people.. PLEASE HELP US TO STOP THE WAR.”

“If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine,” wrote world No. 49 Marta Kostyuk, who played doubles with Yastremska at the 2022 Australian Open (they reached the third round).

They are among the millions of Ukrainians facing the devastating consequences of war. Hundreds of Ukrainians have been killed. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Saturday morning that there have been “more than 250” missile launches from Russian forces in Ukraine. More than 150,000 people have crossed from Ukraine to neighboring countries.

Yastremska, 21, said she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, but she knew it was important for the world to see the impact of war. So she posted about her journey on Instagram, and she was flooded with messages from strangers and fellow tennis players offering support and help. Sloane Stephens, Amanda Anisimova and other players sent their support by commenting on her post.

YASTREMSKA WAS JOLTED awake from her sleep in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

The sound of bombs reverberated across the city, her skin breaking into goose bumps. She rubbed sleep out of her eyes and ran to her parents in the living room.

The Russian military had begun its invasion of Ukraine, the news channels blared. They were attacking from all directions, and Odessa, a port city that shares borders with Moldova on the west, Romania on the south, and the Black Sea on the east, was under threat.

Leaving their belongings in their apartment, they ran to the parking garage. They were told to find an underground area and hide. They stayed there for hours, huddled together for comfort. Yastremska received panicked messages from friends across Ukraine, some of whom were gathering in underground metro stations while others were finding parking garages close to them.

Yastremska heard “terrible explosions,” some far, some so close she thought the next explosion would land in their apartment. All it took was one bomb, one missile, for them to be wiped off the earth, she thought.

“I am so scared. We don’t need to kill each other like this.”

Dayana Yastremska

Later that evening, when her father thought things had calmed down, they quietly made their way back to their apartment to check the news. Things were going to get worse in Odessa, the local news channel said.

“We have to get you girls out of here,” her father said to Yastremska and her sister.

The Moldavian borders were closed. After hearing stories of people escaping via boat to Romania, he made up his mind. He would drive them to the border and put them on a boat.

Yastremska, who had received a wild card to play in Lyon, could fly herself and her sister to France if only they found a way out of Ukraine, as commercial planes in and out of Ukraine had been stopped. Sleep escaped them as they returned to the parking garage to wait. They would leave before dawn the next morning. It was the safest time to drive a car, her father believed.

That’s how Yastremska found herself and all of her belongings on a boat to Romania.

HER EYES PUFFY from a lack of sleep, Yastremska was sitting in her hotel room in Lyon, France, in an oversized black T-shirt, her hair in a messy ponytail. It was 2:30 p.m. French time on Saturday, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued, the Ukrainian forces staging a resistance as Russia advanced on their cities.

“I am so scared,” she said to ESPN on a Zoom video call. “We don’t need to kill each other like this.”

In a matter of hours, Yastremska was not just forced to become a refugee, but she also had become a guardian to her younger sister. She had to be strong for her, take care of her, all the while dealing with her own trauma.

After reaching the Romanian border, the sisters waited in a line and were put in a car that was headed to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where they stayed in a hotel for a few hours. Their two cousins, who had also boarded the boat with them, decided to go to Hungary, to their maternal grandmother’s house. Yastremska and her sister got on a plane to France, where the tournament director of the 2022 Lyon Open welcomed them.

She texted her parents, called them as often as possible. They’re OK, for now, she said. They were still hiding in the parking garage. When her father drove back to Odessa after dropping off Yastremska and her sister, he saw a flurry of activity on the roads, Ukrainian soldiers walking around, waiting to defend their land.

It has been days since she actively thought about tennis, about playing, but come Monday, she will walk onto the court as a proud Ukrainian. She will give it her best, she said.

What comes after the Lyon Open?

“I have no idea,” she said. “Let’s see what happens to Ukraine, to my city.”

“I have my sister to think about, her safety …” she said, tailing off.

Although she was out of harm’s way, every few minutes she said she thought about the missiles being launched into her home country, her city. And every single time, she bristled, her body reacting involuntarily, her bones feeling the vibrations of the attack.

“I am scared for my parents, my friends, and everybody in my country,” she said. “For you to understand what a missile strike is like, you need to feel it. But, I wish [nobody] has to ever feel this [pain].”

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