Women's tennis: Playing keeps UNT trio’s focus off crisis at home

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David Minton/DRC
North Texas tennis players, from left, Kamilla Galieva, Anastasiya Shestakova and Kseniya Bardabush say they have concerns about the ongoing crisis in their homelands of Ukraine and Russia but are able to joke about it as they remain unified teammates.

On the opposite side of the world, where they developed into top college tennis prospects, Kseniya Bardabush, Anastasiya Shestakova and Kamilla Galieva probably wouldn’t have a chance to share the same court. Not now. Not with their homeland in the midst of crisis.

The North Texas trio have thought a little about that reality over the last few weeks as civil unrest in Ukraine has escalated.

That country has been on the verge of tearing apart as it considers aligning with Europe to its west or Russia to the east.

The three have feelings about what should happen back home that don’t always align, not that one can tell on a warm spring afternoon before practice.

“It doesn’t bother us. We joke around about it all the time now. ‘I’m not going to give you a ride because you are Russian!’” Bardabush said as all three burst into laughter. “They are still my teammates. I care about them.”

It’s that caring attitude and the family atmosphere that UNT coach Sujay Lama emphasizes that has allowed the Mean Green to thrive in what has been a tough time personally for three cornerstones of his team, which will take on Louisiana Tech at 11 a.m. today at the Waranch Tennis Complex.

Shestakova is from Crimea, a region in southern Ukraine near Russia where residents voted in favor of a close union with the neighboring country. Bardabush is from Lutsk in the western part of Ukraine, while Galieva is from Ufa, Russia.

Shestakova and her family favor a Ukrainian union with Russia, while Bardabush and her family favor ties with Europe.

What they all have in common are the game they love to play and the bonds they have developed at UNT, where they can play together.

“What is really nice is that they are all good friends and teammates,” Lama said. “My first meeting every year is about diversity and how that is a huge strength. The success we have had is because we have developed a family-first attitude. Everything we do is about being a part of the family. Through the ups and downs, we take care of each other and look out for each other.”

That approach has helped Shestakova and Bardabush in a trying time.

Some of the most violent protests in the conflict have taken place in Crimea, where Shestakova’s family resides.

“I’m very nervous about what is going on,” Shestakova said. “I text with my family all day long and use Skype to talk to them. They have told me a lot about what is going on.”

Bardabush also has been in constant contact with her parents when she isn’t in class or at practice.

“I talk to my family every day,” Bardabush said. “It’s kind of hard to know that things are not going well when you are all the way across the world. I was thinking about going home for vacation over the summer, but now I just don’t know.”

Galieva is from central Russia, far away from the conflict, but is well aware of the situation and can identify with her teammates’ concerns.

“I feel for them,” Galieva said. “It’s difficult to be far from your family with what has gone on in the Ukraine.”

Lama can sense that Shestakova and Bardabush have had a lot to deal with this season.

“The word I would use is that it has been unsettling for them,” Lama said. “You can see that what is going on is on their minds. But because this is a busy season with them caught up in schoolwork and matches, it diverts their attention.”

UNT has just five regular-season matches, the Conference USA championships and potentially the NCAA tournament remaining in its season before Shestakova and Bardabush face an uncertain few months. UNT’s foreign players typically return home for a least a short time over the summer.

Both of UNT’s Ukrainian players could end up staying in Denton the entire summer, depending on the situation in their homeland.

Lama has been pleased with the way Shestakova and Bardabush have handled juggling their schoolwork, matches and practice while staying in touch with their families and considering their summer plans.

Lama said his Ukrainian standouts and Galieva are all excellent students in addition to being top players. Each has played a key role for UNT, which has won its last two matches and five of its last seven, including a wins over Liberty and New Mexico last week.

Bardabush, Shestakova and Galieva swept the top three singles matches in each of UNT’s last two wins.

The trio will be back in action today when it will look to guide UNT past Louisiana Tech and another step closer to a third straight NCAA tournament berth, all while keeping tabs on what is going on back home.

Lama knows he will get their best, no matter what is happening in Ukraine.

“They are focused and driven,” Lama said. “It didn’t come easy for these kids. That is one of the reasons I have had success with Eastern European kids. When they come here they are ready to work.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.


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