St. Thomas University tennis standout Tetiana Kovalska, 22, can’t go home – at least not now.
This should be the happiest time in her life. The accounting major is a newlywed who in May will become the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
But she’s from Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which in the past few weeks has changed from being a part of Ukraine to its current status as a Russian territory.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Simferopol became the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, within newly independent Ukraine. But as of Feb. 27, the city has been occupied by Russian troops — its future left uncertain.
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“Everybody is shocked,” said Kovalska, an only child who left behind her parents when she came to the U.S. to study and play tennis nearly four years ago. “The change was made in a week.
“It’s tough because I worry about my family every day. I pray for the best, but there is no guarantee. I don’t know what will happen next.”
Kovalska said the allegiances of the people in her city are divided.
“Five to one wanted [Crimea] to go to Russia,” said Kovalska, who sees her parents on Skype about three times a week. “I disagree. I was born in Ukraine. I’m a Ukrainian citizen – it’s my homeland. “But nobody asks us for a choice.”
Kovalska, a 5-foot-9 senior, has been playing tennis since age seven, when her father, Sergei, took her to a court.
When it came time for college, Sergei thought an American education would be best for her future. With the help of tennis contacts in Ukraine, Kovalska landed a scholarship to ASA College, a two-year school in New York City.
Kovalska didn’t know any English at the time, but she learned quickly and transferred to St. Thomas in time for her junior season.
She recently completed her senior season at 11-2 overall, including an 8-0 record in the Sun Conference. Last week, she was named the conference’s Women’s Tennis Player of the Year.
Bruce Carrington, who is in his 14th year as tennis coach at St. Thomas, said Kovalska has tremendous talent – a heavy forehand, a slice backhand a very good serve.
“She could have been top 50 in the world if she had the money to play the pro circuit and hire the right coaches,” Carrington said. “She has the power and that focus. That’s what makes her a champion. Even with all the problems she has in her homeland, when she steps on the court, she leaves those issues behind and has that killer instinct.”
Gabriella Bongiovanni, who is Kovalska’s doubles partner, said her teammate is an intense competitor who has been known to yell at opponents she feels make unfair lines calls. (In college, players often call their own lines.)
“You have to be scared to make a bad call around her because she speaks her mind,” Bongiovanni said.
“She’s a powerful player. If you have seen Serena Williams play – obviously, Tetiana is not No. 1 in the world, but she has that style of play.”
But, despite her talent, Kovalska’s tennis career appears to be over. Her plan is to become an accountant and continue living in South Florida with her new American husband, whom she met while asking for directions in Miami.
She would love to visit her hometown, especially in the summer, where millions come to enjoy the Black Sea beaches, but that’s simply not possible right now.
“It’s not a stable situation – it’s not safe,” said Kovalska, who speaks Ukranian, Russian and English. “It’s very emotional for me. It’s really hard to see your country falling apart.”