It takes a village to produce a tennis champion, and Oleksandra “Sashka” Oliynykova puts a new meaning to the phrase — as she atttempts to live her dream in the face of the seemingly insurmountable.
“I love tennis and the tennis life,” Oliynykova said, via email to The Tennis Island. “Tournaments, training, travels, matches, extraordinary situations, emotions…I cannot even imagine [living] another life. I am ready to do all what I can to make it possible.”
Oliynykova’s life off the court is, at best, unsettled: she and her family are political refugees, having fled Ukraine five years ago. She’ll turn 16 on Jan. 3 and has been defying the odds since birth — but to keep her budding tennis career going, she’ll have to defy them again.
Born in Kiev in 2001, Oliynykova was diagnosed with a defect in a neck muscle in her youth. While doctors recommended surgery, they warned that the surgery carried risks that could leave her disabled for the rest of her life. The family decided on alternative forms of treatment, and Oliynykova became healthy and active.
Her first foray into sport, however, found her in an arena that couldn’t have been further away from a tennis court.
“When Sashka was five, my wife and her mother sent her to rhythmic gymnastics,” her father, Denis, recalled in an email to The Tennis Island. “[All the time], she returned from there in tears — she was probably the worst ‘student’ in their group. It was really strange for me, as I played, as an amateur, many sports like football, volleyball, handball, table tennis — so Sashka should be a good sportsperson as well.
“One time, I decided to visit Sashka’s group to see why my daughter was the worst one there. I understood everything immediately: the thing she missed there was a ball. Rhythmic gymnastics was not a game; it was too boring for my kid. I took Sashka away immediately and said to family that I will select a sport for her myself. I just Googled what ‘ball sport’ schools accept kids of 5 years old. Tennis was the first.”
Oliynykova quickly showed promise in the sport under the tutelage of her first coach, July Daviduyk, and had the dreams and attitude to match.
When meeting new people, a small girl with a big tennis bag on her shoulders introduced herself in the following way: “Hello, I am Sashka Oliynykova, and I am going to be the world #1 tennis player & Wimbledon champion.” (sashkatennis.com)
While his daughter rose through the ranks in tennis, winning several national tournaments and earning a top three ranking in the under-10 divisions in 2011, Oliynykova’s father found himself in the national spotlight for an entirely different reason: having worked for nearly 20 years as a project and investment manager, mostly in the technology sphere, he also became a public activist against corruption and was openly critical of former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
When a warrant was issued for their arrest, the family fled Ukraine on Sept. 21, 2011, and arrived in Croatia a week later.
After seeking asylum in the country for 14 months, according to Oliynykova’s father, they became recognized refugees, and the ITF issued an exemption for Oliynykova to compete in individual and team events for Croatia under her refugee passport.
Oliynykova started entering ITF junior tournaments beginning in June of 2015, having spent a brief period under the instruction of former top 40 player Mikael Tillström at the Good to Great Tennis Academy. She found success right away, and reached the semifinals and final, respectively, in her first two Grade 5 events on the circuit.
The family currently lives in Poreč, Croatia, a town on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula where the major source of income is tourism. Oliynykova’s parents own and operate a small sushi bar, where her father is the chef. Previously, Denis attempted to return to his roots and create a new business venture, in which he admits he made several mistakes that led to bankruptcy at the start of 2016, forcing the family to start over.
“If your company [goes] bankrupt, you have angry investors, [a] broken reputation and very negative PR — especially if you decide not to counteract this PR,” he said. “The main negative thing is…you do not believe in yourself in your former knowledge and occupation [any more]. This is probably why I decided to start everything [over]. I like my knives and my fish more than investments.”
While the family now makes some money to live day-to-day and pay for some of Oliynykova’s tennis expenses, their status makes it difficult — nay, nearly impossible — to secure a bank loan or a stronger means of financial income. It is because of these factors that the family decided to turn to the World Wide Web, social media, and the global network of tennis fans around the world for help in financing their daughter’s dream.
“Now it is the off-season [with] no tourists, and we have just a few visitors [at the restaurant],” he said. “We must be open, so any time people want sushi, [they] could get it. The only resource I have with excess is free time and WiFi connection.”
Despite the setback at the start of the year, Oliynykova reached another semifinal and final in Grade 4 events, seeing her junior ranking climb over 500 spots to within the world’s top 400 this season.
“I played a final at an ITF Grade 4 [in Malta],” Oliynykova said, recalling her career highlight from 2016. “[This is] not a big deal, if you think about girls’ Grand Slams, but it was really difficult for me even to reach that tournament. I am really proud that I played until the last day.”
“My favorite shot is [my] serve, though I am not a ‘killer server’,” she said. “My favorite surface is clay, which sounds strange with a serve as a favorite shot, but it is true.”
Having made strides in 2016 herself, Oliynykova says she draws inspiration from another woman who catapulted herself to new heights this season.
“I really like how Angelique Kerber plays [and] how she builds her game,” she said. “I think good tennis is not shot after shot — it is several shots connected in the best way. I think Angelique can connect shots in the best possible way. I would like to find my own playing style, of course, but [I learn from the] best players, and [they] inspire me.”
Oliynykova has begun preparations for the 2017 season, having entered a Grade 2 junior tournament in Slovakia, the 24th Slovak Junior Indoor U18, and a Grade 1 event in the Czech Republic, the RPM Junior Open. She’s also entered a pair of tournaments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are low-level Grade 5 events. She is, currently, the 37th alternate in Slovakia, but has a goal of reaching the top 200 in the junior rankings next season despite the realities currently facing her.
“We are normal people, but in difficult circumstances,” Denis said. “Refugees must be integrated, not excluded…[and] can honestly compete for a place in national teams — just give them the same conditions local athletes have.
“I cannot say for others, but we [our family] do not want to be special. We just want to be like normal citizens.”
His daughter agrees.
“Sashka the girl is a little bit lazy, but very sweet and love pets. Sashka the girl likes rock music, books, TV episodes, long, long sleep and cats!” she said. “But, Sashka the tennis player never gives up. You can win [against] me if you are good, but I will never give the match to you.
“I like to win and achieve. I do not like to lose. But most of all, I’d like…to stay in competitive tennis.”
For more information on Sashka Oliynykova and her family, visit their website at sashkatennis.com or follow her on Twitter @sashkatennis. To support Oliynykova’s Indiegogo campaign for her tennis expenses, click here.