Ukrainian tennis player Dayana Yastremska flees the country and arrives safely in France

Ukrainian tennis player Dayana Yastremska flees the country and arrives safely in France

UKRAINIAN PRO TENNIS Player Dayana Yastremska wrapped her arms around her father, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had to let go. A small boat was waiting to take him and his 15-year-old sister, Ivanna. Their father had chased them from their home in Odessa, Ukraine, about 240 km south to Izmail, a small town in the Danube Delta. Throughout their journey early Friday morning, a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, she saw the devastation the war had already caused. Smoke, buildings reduced to rubble, an eerie calm.

Her father parked the car in Izmail and the family walked the last five minutes to the port, to the boat that would take Dayana and her sister to Romania. Their father kissed her on the forehead as she held two suitcases in which her whole life was randomly packed.

“I don’t know how this war will end, but you have to take care of each other and strive to achieve your dreams, build your new life and always be together,” her father told her. “Don’t worry about us, everything will be fine.”

In matching pink sweatpants, the sisters walked away from their parents, rolling their suitcases to the boat. When the boat’s engine purred, they saluted vigorously their parents, the country they had been forced to leave, all they knew was home.

“Is it a movie or is it real?” Yastremska thinks again and again.

A few days earlier, she was laughing with her family over dinner and worrying about her workout the next day. Today, she didn’t know if she would ever see her father again. Today, she didn’t know if she would have a country to return to.

Now Yastremska is safe in Lyon, France, and despite the horror of the past few days, she plans to compete in the Lyon Open starting Monday. The world No. 121, who was ranked No. 21 in January 2020, has won three WTA titles in her career.

Nine Ukrainians are among the top 300 players on the WTA Tour; three Ukrainian men are ranked in the top 300 of the ATP Tour.

World number 15, Elina Svitolina, also from Odessa and currently residing in London, posted on her social media. “My heart is bleeding… Another terrifying sleepless night for the people of Ukraine… PLEASE HELP US STOP THE WAR.”

“If Russia stops fighting, there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no Ukraine,” wrote world No. 49 Marta Kostyuk, who played doubles with Yastremska at the 2022 Australian Open (they reached the third round).

They are among millions of Ukrainians facing the devastating consequences of war. Hundreds of Ukrainians have been killed. A senior US defense official told reporters on Saturday morning that there had been “more than 250” missile launches Russian forces in Ukraine. More than 150,000 people went from Ukraine to neighboring countries.

Yastremska, 21, said she didn’t want to draw attention to herself, but she knew it was important for the world to see the impact of the war. So she posted her journey on instagram, and she was inundated with messages from strangers and fellow tennis players offering support and help. Sloane Stephens, Amanda Anisimova and other players sent their support by commenting on her post.

YASTREMSKA WAS SHOCKED awakened from her sleep in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The sound of bombs echoed throughout the city, his skin breaking into goosebumps. She wiped sleep from her eyes and ran to her parents in the living room.

The Russian army had begun its invasion of Ukraine, the news channels howled. They were attacking from all directions and Odessa, a port city that shares borders with Moldova to the west, Romania to the south and the Black Sea to the east, was threatened.

Leaving their belongings in their apartment, they ran to the parking lot. They were told to find an underground area and hide. They sat there for hours, huddled together for comfort. Yastremska received panicked messages from friends across Ukraine, some of whom were gathering at underground metro stations while others found parking lots nearby.

Yastremska heard “terrible explosions”, some far away, others so close she thought the next explosion would land in their apartment. All it took was a bomb, a missile, for them to disappear from the earth, she thought.

“I’m so scared. We don’t need to kill each other like this.”

Dayana Yastremska

Later that evening, when her father thought things had calmed down, they quietly returned to their apartment to check on the news. Things were set to get worse in Odessa, the local news channel said.

“We have to get you girls out of here,” her father told Yastremska and her sister.

The Moldovan borders were closed. After hearing stories of people fleeing by boat to Romania, he made up his mind. He would take them to the border and put them on a boat.

Yastremska, who had received a wild card to play in Lyon, could fly with her sister to France if only they found a way out of Ukraine, as commercial planes to and from Ukraine had been stopped. . Sleep eluded them as they returned to the parking lot to wait. They would leave before dawn the next morning. It was the safest time to drive a car, his father believed.

This is how Yastremska ended up with all her belongings on a ship for Romania.

HIS CLOGGED EYES from lack of sleep, Yastremska sat in her hotel room in Lyon, France, in an oversized black T-shirt, her hair in a messy ponytail. It was 2:30 p.m. French time on Saturday and the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued, with Ukrainian forces mounting resistance as Russia advanced on their cities.

“I’m so scared,” she told ESPN on a Zoom video call. “We don’t need to kill each other like that.”

Within hours, Yastremska was not only forced to become a refugee, but she also became her younger sister’s guardian. She had to be strong for her, take care of her, while dealing with her own trauma.

After reaching the Romanian border, the sisters waited in line and were put in a car heading for Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where they stayed in a hotel for a few hours. Their two cousins, who had also boarded the boat with them, decided to go to Hungary, to their maternal grandmother. Yastremska and her sister flew to France, where the 2022 Lyon Open tournament director welcomed them.

She texted her parents, called them as often as possible. They’re fine, so far, she said. They were still hiding in the parking lot. When her father returned to Odessa after dropping off Yastremska and her sister, he saw a flurry of activity on the roads, Ukrainian soldiers walking around, waiting to defend their land.

It has been days since she actively thought about tennis, about playing, but next Monday she will enter the court as a proud Ukrainian. She will do her best, she said.

What happens after the Lyon Open?

“I have no idea,” she said. “Let’s see what happens to Ukraine, to my city.”

“I have to think about my sister, about her safety…” she said, interrupting herself.

Although she was out of danger, she said every few minutes that she thought about the missiles launched at her home country, her city. And each time, she bristled, her body reacting involuntarily, her bones feeling the vibrations of the attack.

“I fear for my parents, my friends and everyone in my country,” she said. “For you to understand what a missile strike looks like, you have to feel it. But, I wish [nobody] should never feel like this [pain].”