WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Lesia Tsurenko’s Wimbledon campaign ended on Friday during a game that left her head elsewhere.
Tsurenko, a 33-year-old tennis veteran from Kyiv, had been watching the news from his home all week and saw that Russians had bombed a mall and other civilian targets.
“They’re just trying to kill as many people as possible,” Tsurenko said of the Russian military.
Since February she had gotten better at banishing thoughts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from her mind when she was on the tennis court, but Friday was a bad day. She said she’s felt off balance since waking up, “like there’s no ground beneath my feet.” And when she went to court against Germany’s Jule Neimeier, she said she had “no idea how to play tennis”.
Balancing the constant travel and physical and mental demands of professional tennis is difficult for even the best players. For players from Ukraine who have been away from home for months and who spend much of their free time checking in on the health and safety of friends and family back home, the challenge is enormous.
The good news for Tsurenko is that she 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 does her husband Nikita Vlasov, a former military officer who is ready to return as soon as he receives the call, but at the moment the armed forces do not need anyone at his level.
“We don’t have a problem with people,” Tsurenko said shortly after her defeat. “The problem is the heavy weapons.”
Tsurenko left Ukraine before the war started, so technically she’s not a refugee. She recently had to miss a tournament so she could stay in Italy and file the paperwork so she could stay there. She’s waiting for approval. Her mother, who lives near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, doesn’t want to leave either, despite the heavy bombing raids. The mother of her sister’s husband also lives there.
Her time playing tennis in England over the past month has given her a break. Russian and Belarusian players have been banned from attending 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 better, she said, not to meet her in the dressing room, although she will soon when the WTA Tour moves outside the UK and they return to competition.
Since the war began on February 24, there have been many matches as Tsurenko has wondered what she even does with tennis. One particular game in Marbella, Spain, stands out. That morning she had seen a photo of an administrative building in Mykolaiv with a huge hole from a missile attack. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.
Recently, however, she has found clarity. She has always played tennis because she loves the game. The riches that sport offered never motivated her. Now they do.
“I play for money now,” she said. “I want to earn so much so I can donate that,” she said, “I feel like that’s poor quality because it has nothing to do with tennis, but that’s what I play.”
At the start of the tournament, Tsurenko, who has four career WTA titles and has earned more than $5 million, had $214,000 in earnings so far this year. The third round at Wimbledon earned her another $96,000. For the 101st player in the world, that’s a solid month’s work. She hopes there will be more this summer.