Life competing on the lower tennis tours can be a grind. Constant travelling, pay check concern and, uncertainty over booking length are just a few of the worries. For one plucky junior though, the decision over which tournament to travel too next may be snatched straight from under her nose.
Oleksandra Oliynykova – or Sashka as she likes to be known – is a 16-year-old tennis player, currently plying her trade on the junior circuit. The catch? Sashka is a refugee.
Born and raised in Ukraine, Sashka took up tennis at the age of five. Six years later, in September 2011, her world was turned upside down. After an arrest warrant was issued for her father Denis – a public activist – the family fled Ukraine, finding themselves in Croatia where they have been ever since as refugees.
Competing as a refugee has its obvious problems. For one, travel difficulties are an unwanted regularity. Detention is a common occurrence as both luggage and person are searched. On top of this, visas are unobtainable which technically means that, as it stands, Sashka cannot actually gain access to three out of the four Grand Slam’s. Hardly ideal for a player whose dream is to grace the green grass of south-west London.
Dear Santa! Please bring me a CITIZENSHIP as Xmas gift. I promise to be a good girl, work hard & play good for my country.
— Sashka Oliynykova (@sashkatennis) December 8, 2016
Yet these problems are nothing more than a gentle speed-bump compared with the major issue looming on Sashka’s horizon. Her status as a refugee expires in December 2017 and, unless she can gain a citizenship, either in Croatia or elsewhere, travelling will become virtually impossible. In fact, due to the impending expiration date on her refugee passport, countries could deny her access as soon as June.
This possible outcome would leave her stranded in Croatia, a country where she is already currently a junior champion. The potential for progression would disappear and her career would be over before it has even possibly started.
Making the most of social media
While there is only so much that Sashka and her team can do, she is making sure that she is doing all of it – and more. Her biggest advantage at the moment? The twenty-first century, technology and social media.
When you need to do some tennis conditioning, but you don’t have necessary equipment ?(credits to Rocky Balboa again! ???) pic.twitter.com/yOBLoSf6vz
— Sashka Oliynykova (@sashkatennis) January 18, 2017
Marketing herself as ‘the first crowdfunded tennis player’, Sashka and her team document her every move on her website to boost recognition of her rare situation. Blogs and vlogs frequently emerge from the Sashka camp, bringing life to her story and publicity to the challenges she faces. One such example is a video from late 2016 showing Sashka going to the beach and finding a large rock to use as a medicine ball as she cannot afford a proper one. Not a problem the likes of Andy Murray face.
Speaking of the British number one, her story has also begun to slowly find its way onto the professional circuit. After she released an open letter to ATP and WTA stars last season, Italian Sara Errani responded by sending a multitude of equipment including clothing and rackets for the youngster to use.
@SaraErrani thank you, Sara! ❤❤❤ I love that (treasury) Nike bag, it contains all that tennis girl needs ☺️
— Sashka Oliynykova (@sashkatennis) January 24, 2017
The fact that just one professional player has picked up and supported her story though is sadly indicative of her crowdfunding campaign. Sashka’s story remains largely untold and has not picked up the traction that her team would have wanted outside of particularly niche tennis spheres. Whether her story may begin to find a new audience if she starts to progress up the junior rankings awaits to be seen. The next six months will be pivotal though, as with the looming deadline of her passport expiration date, the career of this passionate young tennis player may be cut cruelly short.