ASHEVILLE, NC — The Ukrainian comeback attempt had come up just short, and Dayana Yastremska and her four teammates were preparing to pose for their final formal photograph at this Billie Jean King Cup qualifier.
The blue and yellow ribbon representing Ukraine that had been stenciled onto 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 Americans’ celebration after their 3-2 victory Saturday night.
The Ukrainians, with some help from the United States’ team captain, Kathy Rinaldi, cleared away some of the streamers. But as another official began removing them altogether, Yastremska insisted that they remained next to the ribbon for the photograph.
“They were in the colors of USA, and I wanted to leave this near the Ukrainian colors,” she said in an interview. “Because I think it’s a good sign of the support we got here and a sign for 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 dull the edges of a national team competition.
“It’s been hard not to cry,” said Billie Jean King, 78, the American who once starred in this competition, which was formerly known as the Fed Cup long before it was renamed for her in 2020. She visited both teams on Friday shortly before play started. “I just hope the Ukrainians had a moment of escapism.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, United States Tennis Association officials offered to postpone this qualifying-round match. The Ukrainians demurred, but when it came time to book hotels in Asheville, they conceded they no longer had the money for the usual visiting team expenses.
“We said, ‘No problem, we will cover all your local costs,’” said Stacey Allaster, the chief executive for professional tennis at the USTA, which also provided support staff to the delegation. “With the war, it’s so horrifying what’s going on. What can any individual do? But we can all do little things, and what we can do is provide a platform for the Ukrainians to demonstrate that they are strong and fighting and are not going to quit.”
The posters around this city in the Blue Ridge Mountains did not read, “USA vs. Ukraine.” They read, “USA hosts Ukraine.” On changeovers, the scoreboard flashed information on how to donate to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, and about $225,000 was raised in connection with the matches. The American cheering squad supported individual players instead of chanting, “Go USA!”
“We were just trying to find the proper tone and balance,” Allaster said.
The Ukrainian players, all of whom still have family members in their embattled country, felt the job was done right: from the informal dinner for the teams at an Asheville restaurant on Tuesday night to the stirring a cappella rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem by Julia Kashirets that left members of both teams in tears minutes before the matches began.
“We came here to play not against the USA but with the USA for Ukraine, and that’s how it felt to me,” Katarina Zavatska said.
That was in part because of the numerous fans with Ukrainian connections and flags. Christina Dyakiv, 15, from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach on Long Island, traveled to Asheville with her Ukrainian-born parents. Juliia Sherrod, a Ukrainian former leading junior player who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., made the two-hour drive on short notice.
“Every little win counts in any field for Ukraine right now,” said Sherrod, 35, who also goes by Yulia. “In the big scheme of things, a tennis match is no big deal, but it still means a lot.”
In that supportive atmosphere, the Ukrainians nearly managed the upset. After falling behind, 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, often overwhelmed No. 14 Jessica Pegula. More surprisingly, the 201st-ranked Zavatska defeated No. 46 Shelby Rogers.
That meant the concluding doubles match would be decisive, and Pegula and Asia Muhammad, making her King Cup debut, earned a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Yastremska and Lyudmyla Kichenok.
“All day we just really felt that fighting spirit of Ukraine,” Rogers said. “It was really special to see, but really tough to go against. I’m just so proud of my team for stepping up to that, having nerves of steel.”
The first set of the doubles match came down to very little. With Muhammad serving at 5-6, 30-30, the Americans had to scramble to win the longest, most spectacular rally of the match, and at 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Kichenok’s full-cut passing shot struck the very top of the tape.
“She wanted to take a little bit of risk,” Yastremska said, making a tiny space between her right thumb and index finger. “Just like this, in the net!”
The victory qualified the Americans for the 12-team King Cup finals in November, but the Ukrainians are not necessarily eliminated. One wild-card slot is available, and depending on which nation is selected to host the finals, it might be available to Ukraine.
A full-strength Ukrainian team could be formidable: No. 25 Elina Svitolina and No. 53 Marta Kostyuk, the country’s two highest-ranked singles players, missed this match because of injuries and personal issues.
“I don’t want to be arrogant, but maybe we deserve this,” Zavatska said.
Russia won the King Cup last year before being barred from this year’s competition because of the invasion. Olga Savchuk, the Ukrainian team captain in Asheville, believes tennis needs to take the next step and bar Russian players from individual events as well, something Wimbledon is considering.
“Why is somebody who works in McDonald’s in Russia losing their job because of sanctions and the tennis players are exceptions?” Savchuk said.
Zavatska, 22, who is based in southern France, believes the Russians need to take responsibility and “feel discomfort too, as long as people and children are dying in Ukraine.” She said some Russian and Belarusian players had told her the news of atrocities coming out of Ukraine was “fake.”
The guilt some of the players felt in the first month at being safe while other Ukrainians were in so much peril has been superseded by the belief that they can be sporting ambassadors.
“With people watching us back home on TV, you want them just to take a couple of hours to enjoy the tennis and to see that some Ukrainian girls are fighting for the country as well,” Yastremska said.
The arena in Asheville, in scale and design, reminded Savchuk and Yastremska of where the Ukrainian team played home matches in Kharkiv, which has been heavily damaged by Russian bombardments.
Savchuk, now based in London, was born and raised in Donetsk in the disputed Donbas region and her father remains in Donetsk. “He decided to stay because it’s home,” said Savchuk, who said her relatives have spent long stretches in bomb shelters.
Kichenok fled the country after the war started and needed 31 hours to get from Kyiv to Moldova with her parents. Her twin, Nadiia, also part of Ukraine’s team, left Kyiv just before Russia invaded, 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 was constantly having panic attacks. I never experienced anything like that, like 40 minutes your body is shaking, and you don’t know what to do besides deep breaths.”
The Kichenoks’ father, who is 64, has since returned to Ukraine and tried to volunteer for the military despite exceeding the age limit.
“They told him, ‘Grandfather, go back home,’” Nadiia Kichenok said. “’We have too many people here. We will call you when we need you.’”
Yastremska, 21, fled Odesa, her home city, with her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna, crossing into Romania after saying goodbye to their parents on the Ukrainian side of the Danube River. The sisters have been traveling on tour together for nearly two months while their parents remain in Odesa, where one of their tasks has been organizing relief efforts through Yastremska’s charitable foundation.
Unable to return home, the Yastremska sisters remain without a fixed training base, but they will head next to 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 is sharing her small apartment with her mother and other relations who fled Ukraine.
After a week of togetherness and a final night of karaoke with the Americans on Saturday, the Ukrainians will move on, but with the hope that Asheville and the wider world do not move on too quickly.
“I don’t want people to get used to this grief that we are experiencing,” Nadiia Kichenok said. “We don’t want people to be sorry for us. We want them to stay strong with us, fighting for freedom and humanity.”