ASHEVILLE, N.C./WASHINGTON, April 14, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)
When the United States plays host to Ukraine in a 2022 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifying event Friday and Saturday at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, N.C., they will be foes on the court. However, off of it, there will be a family feeling among the two nations.
The host city, located in western North Carolina, previously played host in 2018 and 2019 under the event’s previous name, Fed Cup. In 2018, Serena Williams made her competitive return to the court after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, and contributed to a first-round 3-1 U.S. victory over the Netherlands. The following year, also in the first round, the U.S. lost to 3-2 to an Australian team that was anchored by future three-time major champion and World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, who was just coming into her own.
This year’s Qualifier between the U.S. and Ukraine is a best-of-5 match series that begins Friday afternoon with a pair of singles matches. On Saturday, two reverse singles matches and the doubles match will take place, with an amended schedule possible if one team clinches victory in the third or fourth match. The U.S.-Ukraine winner will advance to the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Finals later this year at a location to be announced.
Team 🇺🇸 & Team 🇺🇦 arrive in Asheville competing for a spot in the @BJKCup Finals, but united behind a larger purpose.
— USTA (@usta) April 12, 2022
Despite some recent roster changes, in which World No. 8 Danielle Collins and World No. 44 Sloane Stephens pulled out of this weekend’s tie, the U.S. will still field a veteran team that has plenty of depth. World No. 14 Jessica Pegula will anchor the singles lineup in her second BJK Cup appearance with support from No. 43 Alison Riske and No. 46 Shelby Rogers. The American doubles will feature No. 15 Desirae Krawczyk and No. 36 Asia Muhammad, both making their BJK Cup debut. The U.S team is captained by Kathy Rinaldi, who is in her sixth year and sports a win-loss record of 8-4.
“I love my team. I tell you what, it’s absolutely incredible,” Rinaldi said during a pre-event press conference earlier this week. “Jessica is coming off a couple of phenomenal years. She’s had her highest ranking. Shelby has been on the team as well. They’re both playing incredible tennis.
“Ali Riske brings so much to our team. Then, we have two rookies. It’s always exciting for a captain to have rookies because they’re super excited to be here, great team players.”
And what do the players think?
“I think it’s always an inspiring event to play,” said Pegula. “We feel like it’s always an honor, obviously, to play with your country.
“I didn’t play in Asheville last time, but I’m super excited to be here. I know they got quite a bit of crowd from last time. That’s really exciting to know.”
Added Rogers: “Last time I was here in Asheville, I was actually spectating, supporting the team. I was still injured. I’m kind of drawing from some of those feelings.
“Like Jess said, we take a lot of inspiration from other American players. It’s been a dream of mine, and a lot of others, too, to play for your country.”
Rinaldi said the camaraderie of the U.S. team “has already been incredible.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be captain of this team with these five remarkable young ladies.”
🇺🇸 @BJKCup Captain Kathy Rinaldi welcomes 🇺🇦 to Asheville for this weekend’s tie.
— USTA (@usta) April 12, 2022
While Ukraine may be thin on talent, they will be wearing their hearts on their sleeves all weekend while thinking about family and friends back in their war-torn Eastern European homeland. First-year captain Olga Savchuk has put together a team that features World No. 93 Dayana Yastremska, once ranked as high as World No. 21, and No. 201 Katarina Zavatska in singles. The Ukrainian doubles will feature the sister combo of Nadiia and Lyudmyla Kichenok. Both made their debut in 2010 and have played in a combined 18 ties. All of the Ukrainian players recently competed in the Credit One Charleston Open last week in South Carolina.
Savchuk was asked to describe her emotions and those of her team. “It’s tough to explain how we feel. … It’s like we live in two different realities,” she explained. “Here we are. Of course, we have to continue to support our families.
“But, yeah, sometimes just like having food, I’m thinking about my grandpa and aunt who are in bomb shelter now. How can I even have a cup of tea right now? My family is, like, underground. I have goosebumps when I even talk about it.
“I think I can speak about all of us, for sure. We all had also, in the beginning especially, emotions like guilt that you’re not there and your family is there. We went through all kinds of emotions.
“Now it sounds scary to even say, but you kind of get used to it. You wake up, first thing you do is check to see if your family is okay, and check the news. We do that basically non-stop.”
Ukraine team captain Olga Savchuk (left) and player Katarina Zavatska discuss the struggles of focusing on tennis at the Billie Jean King Cup in Asheville, NC while war rages back home in Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/MIHs2XI5oj
— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) April 12, 2022
Savchuk said she’s hopeful that Ukraine’s tie this weekend against the U.S. will give people back in war-torn Ukraine something to feel positive about. “It’s probably impossible,” she said, “but at least some hope. I think it’s also very important, yeah, that we play, we fight and we try to win.”
Added Zavatska: “Yes, definitely. … We will fight like never [before].”
The bottom line, Rinaldi stressed, goes beyond the baseline. “We’re a true family,” she said. “At the end of the day, we come together. We’re opponents on the court, but we’re allies and friends off the court. We really do care for each other and we pull together when times get tough.”
• Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King, the namesake of the Billie Jean King Cup, will attend and participate in Friday’s opening ceremony at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville. King and partner Ilana Kloss are donating $50,000 to Ukraine relief, while the USTA will donate 10 percent of ticket revenue from the even to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund by Global Giving. Meanwhile, local sponsors Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos, Ingles Markets and New Belgium Brewing Company will also make donations. The USTA will organize a number of support activities on the ground in Asheville and will encourage fans to make their donations via TennisPlaysForPeace.com.
Good luck to the 14 teams competing this weekend in the @BJKCup Qualifiers.
The World Cup of women’s tennis kicks off on Friday and continues into Saturday. pic.twitter.com/AsLtBDDMdh
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) April 14, 2022
• The U.S. and Ukraine have met in the Billie Jean King Cup competition once, back in 2012 in Kharkiv, under its old name (Fed Cup) and format (home and away). The Kichenok sisters both played for Ukraine in that tie, which was won by the U.S. 5-0 and played on clay. The American team featured Serena Williams and Christina McHale in singles and Liezel Huber and Sloane Stephens in doubles.
• The weekend’s winner will be one of seven nations advancing out of Qualifying to the 12-nation Billie Jean King Cup Finals, which will be played in November at a date and location to be announced. Australia, Slovakia, Belgium and 2022 runner-up Switzerland have received automatic berths into the Finals. A final wild card nation will complete the 12-team field. Meanwhile, this weekend’s loser will be relegated to play in a Playoff tie in November against a nation to be determined. The winner of that tie will return to the Qualifying field in 2023.
• Tickets for the U.S.-Ukraine Qualifier are available for purchase at http://USTA.com/bjkc or via Ticketmaster.