Lesia Tsurenko plays tennis to earn money to help Ukraine

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WIMBLEDON, England — Lesia Tsurenko’s Wimbledon campaign ended Friday in 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’re just trying to kill as many people as possible,” Tsurenko said of the Russian military.

Since February, she had tried hard not to think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine when she was on the tennis court, but Friday was a bad day. She said she felt unbalanced from the moment she woke up, “like there was no ground under my feet”. And once she took to the court against Germany’s Jule Neimeier, she said she “had no idea how to play tennis”.

Juggling the constant travel and physical and mental challenges of professional tennis is difficult for even the best players. For players in Ukraine these days, who haven’t been home in months and are spending much of their free time keeping up to date with the health and safety of their friends and family members. family, the challenge is monumental.

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. Just like her husband, Nikita Vlasov, a former military officer, who is ready to return as soon as he receives the call but for the moment the forces do not need someone at his level.

“We have no 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 to be able to stay in Italy and fill out paperwork to allow her to stay there. She is waiting for approval. Also, his mother, who lives near Mykolaiv, in the south of Ukraine, does not want to leave, despite the intensive bombardments. Her sister’s husband’s mother also lives there.

The time she spent playing tennis in England last month has given her some respite. Russian and Belarusian players have been banned from competing at Wimbledon. Knowing how popular President Vladimir V. Putin remains in Russia, Tsurenko assumed that some of the Russian and Belarusian players would likely support him. It was better, she said, not to bump into them in the locker room, although she will soon when the WTA Tour leaves Britain and they return to competition.

There have been many matches since the start of the war on February 24 when Tsurenko wondered what she was doing even while playing tennis. One match in particular in Marbella, Spain stands out. That morning, she had seen a picture of an administrative building in Mykolaiv with a huge hole from a missile strike. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.

Lately, however, she has found clarity. She has always played tennis because she loves the game. The riches offered by sport have never motivated her. Now they do.

“I play for the money now,” she said. “I want to win so badly so I can donate,” she said. “I feel like maybe it’s a bad quality, because it has nothing to do with tennis, but that’s what I play.”

Going into the tournament, Tsurenko, who has four career WTA titles and has earned more than $5 million, had taken home $214,000 so far this year. Making the third round at Wimbledon earned him another $96,000. For the 101st player in the world, it’s been a good month of work. She hopes there will be more this summer.

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