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Pro Media & News

Sportsmanship to be front and center as U.S. hosts Ukraine for Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier

Victoria Chiesa | April 05, 2022

Kathy Rinaldi’s 13th all-time tie as U.S. Billie Jean King Cup captain will be unlike any other.

 

When the U.S. welcomes Ukraine to Asheville, N.C., next week, the opening round of the largest international team competition in women’s sport will be under a global spotlight: the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier is one of the first sporting events played by a Ukrainian national team in the shadow of the ongoing conflict in the country after it was invaded by Russia in February.

 

The winner of the tie, scheduled to be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center from April 15-16, will advance to November’s Billie Jean King Cup Finals.

 

“We realize, obviously, what Ukraine is going through, and leading up to this tie, we’ve been very happy to make sure that the Ukrainians have everything that they need to prepare and know that they’re very much supported,” Rinaldi told usta.com last week. “We’re looking for a weekend of very competitive spirit on the court, but also, friendship off the court.”

The recent events in Ukraine have touched the tennis community in a variety of ways. A week after Russia launched its unprovoked assault, the WTA, ATP, ITF and the four Grand Slams—the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open—issued a statement of unified condemnation in early March, and each donated $100,000 apiece to the Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, which is providing help on the ground across the region, as well as to the Ukraine Tennis Federation. These groups also introduced the “Tennis Plays for Peace” initiative, supported by their respective digital and social media platforms, which looks to further unite the tennis community and tennis fans everywhere to help support Ukraine.

 

The USTA is donating a further 10% of the overall ticket revenue from the event in Asheville to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund, and local sponsors Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos, Ingles Markets and New Belgium Brewing Company will also make donations. Rinaldi noted that the two teams are expected to get together for a special dinner next Tuesday in a further show of unity and sportsmanship, and the USTA will also organize several on-site activations to encourage fans to show their support.

“Every time I’ve had a conversation with our players, even before we named our team, everybody was wanting to do something to support Ukraine and to be there to support the players,” Rinaldi said. “These girls see each other week in and week out, and it was very important to the [U.S.] team that we support them.… Just to be there for them, making sure that they have everything that they need leading up to the matches, that they feel welcomed and supported first and foremost, that’s most important.

 

“Everybody respects the competition, and once you step on the court, you’re competing, but off the court, we’re allies and we’re friends and we want to be there for them.”

Ukraine will be without its top player, Elina Svitolina, who withdrew from the competition last week after initially being named to the team. The former world No. 3, now ranked No. 27, announced that she’ll be taking a break from playing to heal a lingering back injury, also referencing the emotional toll that the events of the last month have taken on her. The team will instead be led by 21-year-old former world No. 21 Dayana Yastremska, 22-year-old Katarina Zavatska, and twins Lyudmyla and Nadiia Kichenok, who’ve won a dozen WTA doubles titles combined.

 

“They have a pretty deep squad to choose from,” said Rinaldi. “They’re playing for their country. Emotions are already high at the Billie Jean King Cup, but now, they have something extra. We know that, and so I think it’s going to be a really exciting Friday and Saturday of matches.”

 

Four of Rinaldi’s five players participated in the most recent Billie Jean King Cup Finals last November in Prague, where the U.S. fell just short of playing for the trophy with a semifinal defeat. Team USA has won six of its last seven Billie Jean King Cup ties on home soil, and the U.S. effort this time around is expected to be led by Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, now ranked a career-high No. 8. Collins will be joined in Asheville by Jessica Pegula, Alison Riske, Shelby Rogers and Desirae Krawczyk.

Not initially nominated, Riske will replace Sloane Stephens, who officially withdrew from the competition on Monday. 

 

Much of that group has excelled in this international competition: Collins went undefeated in Prague with three singles wins, while Rogers and Stephens were integral members of the last U.S. team to win the Billie Jean King Cup in 2017. Question marks do surround Collins, though, after she was plagued by a neck injury in her quarterfinal defeat to Naomi Osaka at the Miami Open last week.

 

Rinaldi says she’ll be in close contact with her top player in the coming days to cement her status.

“Danielle cracked the Top 10 now, and I know that was a big goal for her,” Rinaldi said. “She’s an incredible competitor. I’ve known her since she was a young junior, and to see her go through college and take all that maturity onto the pro circuit and really blossom into one of our top players has been incredible to watch, and it’s not surprising, knowing Danielle.

 

“She played incredible tennis in the Finals in Prague. She’s one that you want on your team because you know what you’re going to get from her, each and every day. She’s going to fight and she’s going to compete, and she’s playing incredible tennis.”

 

Rinaldi is equally enthused when she sizes up the rest of her squad for Asheville, including Riske's first Billie Jean King Cup appearance since 2018.

 

“Jessica Pegula just made the semifinals in Miami and really has come into her own in the last few years,” the captain adds. “We always knew that she hits the ball incredibly well, she has incredible hands, and she’s coming in with a lot of confidence at her career-high ranking, as well. Shelby Rogers is always a pleasure to have on the team, is playing great tennis, is extremely fit, and having some great wins."

 

The lone outlier in the group is Krawczyk, the world No. 18 in doubles, who’ll be making her Billie Jean King Cup debut. The 28-year-old played college tennis at Arizona State University and has won six career WTA doubles titles, but is best known for winning three of the four Grand Slam tournaments in mixed doubles last year. Should the tie come down to a deciding doubles match, expect Krawczyk to play a crucial role alongside any of her teammates.

Photo credit: Darren Carroll/USTA

“Des, playing in college, knows what it’s like to play on a team,” Rinaldi said. “It’s always great to have somebody that you can rely on that has been in those big moments like a Grand Slam final. She certainly played some incredible tennis in those finals, and is also a great teammate. She can play with a couple of players on our team.

 

“We have some great doubles players … Danielle played with Des at the Australian Open and they did extremely well [reaching the third round] and they have great chemistry. Des and Jess have played [together], Jess and Shelby have played [together], so it’s always nice to have the singles players who have also performed great in doubles. I’m really happy to have different combinations to be able to go with.”

The Qualifier is a best-of-five match series that begins Friday with two singles matches. Two reverse singles matches and the doubles match will follow on Saturday, with an amended Saturday schedule possible if one team clinches victory in the third or fourth match. The location of the 2022 Finals will be announced later this year. 

 

“I think every player is playing for something so much bigger than themselves on these weekends, but this is a unique situation, so we’re expecting them to come out and play their best,” Rinaldi said.

 

“Our players equally take these weeks very seriously. We’ve had extremely strong teams, so many players raising their hand to play, which is amazing. As captain, that’s what you want to see. I think it’s going to be [played] in great sportsmanship, in great spirit, between both teams, and incredible tennis.”

 

Tickets for the 2022 Qualifier can be purchased at usta.com/bjkc or at Ticketmaster. For more information, including access to player and historical records, visit the USTA's Billie Jean King Cup homepage of the official Billie Jean King Cup site.

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