Ukrainian tennis players live 'parallel lives' at the Billie Jean King Cup

    Ukraine's Dayana Yastremska reaching the Lyon WTA final on March 6, just a week after escaping Russian bomb attacks on her home city of Odessa.

    (CNN)Wearing a shirt decorated with the Ukrainian flag in the shape of a heart, Lyudmyla Kichenok practiced her serve with teammate Dayana Yastremska in an empty arena under the watchful eyes of their captain Olga Savchuk on Thursday.

    In Asheville, North Carolina, the Ukrainian women's tennis team is in the midst of their match against Team USA for the Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, bombs rain down on their hometowns as war rages on in Ukraine.
    "I feel like we have two different realities right now. The tennis court, an amazing atmosphere, amazing arena here. And then on the other side, we have people dying every day," Katarina Zavatska told CNN Sport.
      Despite a valiant recovery from 2-0 down, a stunning fightback ultimately fell just short as Team USA edged Ukraine in the deciding doubles game to take the tie 3-2 on Saturday.
        Yastremska, ranked 93rd in the world, had beaten world No.14 Jessica Pegula before Zavatska pulled off an even bigger upset to defeat Shelby Rogers, ranked 155 places above her to draw Ukraine level at 2-2.
        However, a 7-6(5) 6-3 doubles victory for Pegula and Asia Muhammad over Kichenok and Yastremska saw the US progress to the finals in November.

        Leaving Ukraine

          Dayana Yastremska serving against Alison Riske during the first round of the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier on April 15, 2022.
          Less than three months ago, both Kichenok and Yastremska were far from the tennis court, fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
          On February 25, Kichenok left Ukraine with her parents. She drove for 31 hours straight from Kyiv to Chisinau, Moldova -- a 500-mile trip.
          "Honestly, I've never experienced such a fear in my life. My body was shaking for two hours. I couldn't talk. Like, it was really shocking. And yeah, a couple days I couldn't eat anything," Kichenok said to CNN. "Those days were like the most difficult in my life, I can say for sure."
          Lyudmyla's sister, Nadiia, had left Ukraine early to prepare for Indian Wells Open and found out about the war on the news.
          "I knew my sister's there in Kyiv, my mother is there in Kyiv, my dad is in Kyiv. And it was just -- until they arrived to Moldova -- just two days of hell," Nadiia told CNN Sport. "I mean, I've never experienced anything like that. This fear is just hard to express. It was pulling me apart. I had constant panic attacks."
          Yastremska crossed the Danube River into Romania from Izmail with her younger sister the same day the Kichenoks left Kyiv. But unlike Lyudmyla, the Yastremska sisters had to leave their parents behind.
          "That day I'm going to remember for all my life when I was leaving, especially when we crossed the border," Yastremska told CNN. "You see your parents on the other side of the river and you just didn't realize till the end how this happened, how these things can happen in 2022."

          Playing tennis and being at war

          At first, it was hard for Lyudmyla to play tennis. When she arrived at Indian Wells in California, she struggled to reconcile the peace she saw on the court with the war being waged on her home.
          "My first day on site, that tennis center was shocking. I was shocked how people can still laugh. They were laughing, just living a normal life," Lyudmyla said. "I didn't understand how is it possible because my mind was still there."
          Yastremska has also struggled with maintaining her focus on the tennis court. Over time, playing has gotten easier, but most of her thoughts are still with Ukraine.
          "Well, I'm not going to lie even to myself. It's very hard. I'm trying to pretend like I'm pretty strong and I can play and stuff, but it's not true. It's very hard," she explained.
          Savchuk describes it as a "parallel life." When she looks around her, she sees people living normally but her heart remains in Ukraine where war rages on.
          Nadiia though has found some solace on the court. Playing tennis forces her to put her phone down for a couple of hours and distract herself from the constant news of war in Ukraine.
          Like Nadiia, Zavatska has also derived some comfort from tennis. She's grateful for the opportunity to play tennis, considering the dire situation in her home country.