October 3, 2022

Wimbledon, England – Lesia Tsurenko’s Wimbledon campaign ended on Friday during a match where she had her head elsewhere.

Tsurenko, a 33-year-old veteran tennis player from Kyiv, had been watching the news from home all week and seeing 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 army.

Since February, she’s gotten better at putting thoughts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine out of her mind when she’s on the tennis court, but Friday was a bad day. She said she’s felt off-balance since she woke up, “as if there was no ground under my feet.” Once she sued German Julie Niemeyer, she said she had “no idea how to play tennis.”

Aligning constant travel with the physical and mental grind of professional tennis is challenging even for the best players. For players from Ukraine these days, who haven’t been home in months and spend much of their free time getting updates about the health and safety of friends and family back home, the challenge is enormous.

The good news for Tsurenko is that she has found a semi-permanent home in northern Italy, at an academy run by famed coach Riccardo Piatti. She has an apartment. Her sister Oksana recently joined her. So did 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 troops do not need a person of 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 began, so she is not technically a refugee. Recently, she had to miss a course so she could stay in Italy and file papers to be allowed to stay there. It is waiting for approval. And her mother, who lives near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, does not want to leave despite the heavy bombardment. Her sister’s mother-in-law also lives there.

Her time playing tennis in England last month has given her a respite. Russian and Belarusian players have been banned from competing at Wimbledon. Knowing how popular President Vladimir Putin is in Russia, Tsurenko assumed that some Russian and Belarusian players likely supported him. She said it would have been better if you didn’t bump into them in the locker room, although she’ll be up soon when the WTA tour moves out of Britain and they’re back in action.

There have been many matches since the war began on February 24 when Tsurenko wondered what she was even doing playing tennis. A particular match stands out in Marbella, Spain. That morning, I saw a photo of an administrative building in Mykolaiv with a large hole as a result of a missile strike. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.

But recently, I’ve found clarity. She has always played tennis because she loves the game. The fortunes offered by the sport never motivated her. Now they do.

“I’m playing for money now,” she said. “I want to earn so much that I can donate this,” she said, “I feel like it might be of poor quality, because it has nothing to do with tennis, but that’s what I play.”

Entering the tournament, Tsurenko, who has claimed four WTA titles and earned more than $5 million, has earned $214,000 so far this year. The third round at Wimbledon earned her an additional $96,000. For the 101st ranked player in the world, this is a solid month’s work. She hopes there will be more to come this summer.

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