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Petruk’s tennis path crosses borders

Ukraine native leads boys tennis team
Kevin Hutchinson
Nikita Petruk finds new opportunities here at Baldwin High School.

Before the Russian invasion of his native country, Baldwin tennis standout Nikita Petruk was living a pretty normal teenage life in Ukraine.

“Back in Ukraine, I would have tennis practice after school. I would ride bikes with my friends, and go to the beaches on the Black Sea,” Petruk said.

Though he is only a sophomore, Petruk already plays first singles for the Baldwin tennis team. But Petruk’s path to that position has been anything but usual. 

After the Russian army invaded Ukraine in 2022, Petruk’s family fled.

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My mom said ‘I’m not going to live this way.’ We left the next day. ”

— Nikita Petruk

“They entered Kyiv and it was crazy,” Petruk said. “In my part of the country, homing missiles were coming, and drones, but no soldiers. I heard a missile one day when I was walking my dog. I heard a ‘boom.’ ”

Petruk said his family’s decision to flee was immediate and unhesitant.

“My mom said ‘I’m not going to live this way.’ We left the next day,” Petruk said.

After leaving, the Petruks bounced around Europe. After a brief period in Romania, the family moved to Spain, where they lived for several months. After a brief move to Germany, they returned to Spain and then relocated to Brussels, Belgium.

After several months there, the family found asylum in the United States, moving to Louisiana before settling in Pittsburgh. But through all the travel, Petruk kept consistent with his tennis practice.

“I was living in Belgium for almost a year. I played there during the summer, and went to team practices,” he said. “There were about 40 people there, and we played from nine in the morning until 5 p.m. every day. That was tough.”

No doubt, all this practice has given Petruk an edge, something that his teammates can clearly see. Junior Kelson Kleinhampl sees in Petruk an ability to stay focused.

“Nikita’s the best player on our team, which is pretty crazy because he’s only in tenth grade,” Kleinhampl said. “He just comes to every match with a good mindset and he performs the best he can.”

But for Petruk, tennis is mostly for enjoyment, not accolades. He loves the creativity of the game and the ability it gives him to forge his own playing style:

“It’s fun because when you explore tennis more and more, you can create your own shots,” Petruk said. “Tennis allows you to be creative.”

When it comes to team matches, staying calm is key. Sophomore Hayden Swanson sees Petruk’s ability to stay cool under pressure.

“He stays very calm usually,” Swanson said. 

Petruk also sees this strength in himself.

“If I’ve lost the ball, I just go inside myself and focus on fixing what I did wrong,” Petruk said. “I try not to get down on myself.”

Swanson said the team benefits from Petruk’s depth of tennis experience.

“He’s like a coach. He’s been playing a lot longer than us, so he gives us tips and strategies to use in matches and helps us with form,” Swanson said. “If someone asks for help, he will always help them.”

Petruk’s skill and experience were evident last week, as he won the singles championship at the North Allegheny Invitational Tournament. He had to defeat several opponents in hot, humid weather.

He really cherishes his opportunities.”

— Kelson Kleinhampl

“I had low sugar, and my face was pale,” Petruk said. “I had to eat and drink during breaks to get through.”

Though Petruk’s family has had to move to new countries several times, he looks at the sport of tennis as a part of his identity, regardless of where he is living.

“I’m happy to be able to play. In Ukraine I was also working hard, sometimes practicing five days a week. I was playing in Federal Tennis of Ukraine. There are age categories, and when I was 12 I took seventh place in the whole category.”

Kleinhampl has seen the fruits of all this training and experience.

“He really cherishes his opportunities,” Kleinhampl said. “He’s an incredibly well rounded player. He’s very good at every skill, and he’s super dedicated. He practices to his full ability every time.”

Petruk is competing in tennis beyond playing for Baldwin, is he now also playing with matches through the U.S. Tennis Association.

“These matches can give you a rating, which can help with scholarships or offers later on,” Petruk said.

Plus, he has big goals for the future.

“I want to play the U.S. Open in three or four years,” Petruk said. “And live a sweet life.”

This story was originally published on Purbalite on May 7, 2024.