The United States and Ukraine may be opponents on the court this week at the Billie Jean King Cup qualifying tie in Asheville, North Carolina, but off the court, it’s a decidedly different story as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.
In addition to the emotional toll the war has taken on the Ukrainian players, it has created logistical challenges and made playing in this week’s event significantly harder as the team’s finances are frozen and many of the administrative officials and support staff are unable to travel. Team captain Olga Savchuk is the only non-player making the trip on behalf of the Ukraine Tennis Federation.
“What we’re dealing with is nothing compared to what our families and all the people who are in Ukraine are going through, but it’s been difficult,” Savchuk told ESPN. “There are so many things we can’t organize or do right now, but the [United States Tennis Association] and the [International Tennis Federation] are doing quite a lot for us.”
The USTA and the ITF are splitting the costs for lodging and travel for the team, and the USTA is providing on-the-ground support to help fill the void left by those unable to travel.
“This is such an unusual situation,” said Megan Rose, the USTA’s managing director of major events. “Usually when we’re hosting a team, our questions are like, ‘What kind of milk do you want in the players’ lounge?’ But we’ve been working with Olga closely on identifying what their needs are and how the USTA can support that with different staffing or infrastructure things that we can easily take care of for them. And that’s everything from providing them with an athletic trainer and a massage therapist to having a special liaison, that’s a USTA staff member that’s with them for the entire week, to ensure that they have everything that they need.
“There’s the emotional piece of everything that they’re going through and then having to deal with certain logistical things, and we’re trying to take as much of that we’re capable of off of their plates so that they really can just come in and focus on the tennis and hopefully just have a great week in a great city.”
Ten percent of the ticket revenue from the event, which gets underway on Friday at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, will be donated to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. Billie Jean King, the tournament’s namesake, will be in attendance to take part in the opening ceremony. She and her partner Ilana Kloss announced last week they would also be donating $50,000 to the relief fund.
A Ukraine flag ribbon will be painted onto the court and a moment of silence will be held before play in honor of those in the war-torn country. Savchuk and those at the USTA are hopeful Asheville’s Ukrainian population will attend the event, and fans will be supportive of both teams. Savchuk said she’s already received “more than a hundred” ticket requests from friends and acquaintances.
Stacey Allaster, the chief executive for professional tennis at the USTA, said the organization has made adjustments even in the marketing of the event to acknowledge the trying time for the Ukrainian team.
“This is still a competition so there’s a fine balance there, but we’ve even slightly changed the language around the event,” said Allaster. “Normally it would be ‘USA vs. Ukraine’ but now we’re using ‘USA hosts Ukraine’ because we’re trying to host them and welcome them as competitors and do it in a way as best we can to be respectful and mindful of the different emotions that they’re going through.”
That’s just one of the changes taking place. As the Billie Jean King Cup is typically fiercely contested and players take great pride in representing their countries, there is normally limited interaction between the opposing teams. However, given the current circumstances, the U.S. team felt differently about such separation.
American team captain Kathy Rinaldi proposed the idea of hosting a dinner with both teams on Tuesday night, and her team members, which include Jessica Pegula and Shelby Rogers, were in immediate agreement.
“I was trying to think outside the box of what we could do for the Ukrainian players,” Rinaldi said. “And in speaking with all of our players, we all wanted to do something that could make them feel supported and make them feel at home. I usually give my girls a little team gift and this time I decided to do something for both teams. I had blankets made with both flags, and it says ‘We stand with you’ on it.
“We respect the competition when it comes to the weekend, but the tennis community, and really it’s a tennis family, we’re very tight knit. When things happen, we really bond together, unite together and pull through these tough times.”
Of course, there still is a berth to November’s 12-team Billie Jean King Cup finals on the line and both teams will do whatever it takes to win during the best-of-five match (four singles, one doubles) event over the two days of competition.
Savchuk said she would relish a victory and the berth, but she sees this weekend as an opportunity for something much bigger than tennis.
“I’ve had times where I’ve been having a meal and watching the news, and feeling super guilty that I’m having this nice meal when my family is in a bomb shelter starving and fighting for their lives,” Savchuk said. “I know all of our girls have felt that way. It’s super difficult to focus on tennis because it just feels surreal, but this in a way is the best way we can help our country. It’s very important for them to play and represent our country and keep everyone talking about what’s going on back home.
“I’m super proud to be Ukrainian right now and it’s touched some things in my soul that have never been touched before. I’m just proud of our people and how they all come together now and working together and fighting together and helping each other. And I know people aren’t really able to watch sport right now in our country, but maybe for a second we could give our people hope and something positive. I know this seems so small, but it’s also very big.”