WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Lesia Tsurenko’s Wimbledon campaign ended Friday during a match in which her head was elsewhere.
Tsurenko, a 33-year-old tennis veteran from Kyiv, had been watching the news from home all week and saw that the Russians had bombed a shopping mall and other civilian targets.
“They are just trying to kill as many people as possible,” Tsurenko said of the Russian military.
Since February, he had gotten better at not thinking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine when he was on the tennis court, but Friday was a bad day. She said that she felt unbalanced from the moment she woke up, “like there was no ground under my feet.” And once she took the court against Jule Neimeier of Germany, she said that she “had no idea how to play tennis”.
Juggling the constant travel and physical and mental grind of professional tennis is difficult for even the best players. For players in Ukraine these days, who haven’t been home in months and spend much of their free time receiving health and safety updates from friends and family back home, the challenge is monumental.
The good news for Tsurenko is that he appears to have found a semi-permanent home in northern Italy, at an academy run by famed coach Ricardo Piatti. She has an apartment. Her sister Oksana recently joined her. So did her husband, Nikita Vlasov, a former military man, who is ready to return as soon as she receives the call, but at the moment the forces do not need someone of her level.
“We don’t have a problem with people,” Tsurenko said shortly after his loss. “The problem is heavy weapons.”
Tsurenko left Ukraine before the war started, so she is not technically a refugee. Recently, she had to miss a tournament in order to stay in Italy and file the paperwork to allow her to stay there. She is waiting for approval. Also, her mother, who lives near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, does not want to leave, despite heavy shelling. Her sister’s husband’s mother also lives there.
His time playing tennis in England last month has given him some breathing room. Russian and Belarusian players were banned from competing at Wimbledon. Knowing how popular President Vladimir V. Putin remains in Russia, Tsurenko has assumed that some of the Russian and Belarusian players are likely to support him. It’s been best, he said, not to bump into them in the locker room, although he will soon when the WTA Tour moves out of Britain and they return to competition.
There have been many matches since the war began on February 24 when Tsurenko wondered what he was doing playing tennis. One match in particular stands out in Marbella, Spain. That morning he had seen a photo of an administration building in Mykolaiv with a huge hole from a missile attack. He couldn’t get the image out of his head.
Lately, however, he has found clarity. He has always played tennis because he loves the game. The riches that the sport offered never motivated her. Now they do.
“Now I play for the money,” he said. “I want to earn a lot so I can donate this,” she said. “I feel like it can be a bad quality, because it has nothing to do with tennis, but that’s what I’m playing.”
Entering the tournament, Tsurenko, who has four career WTA titles and has earned more than $5 million, had earned $214,000 so far this year. Reaching the third round at Wimbledon earned him an additional $96,000. For the player ranked No. 101 in the world, that’s a solid month’s work. She hopes there will be more later this summer.