Shavit Kimchi's start to life in Durham hasn't been easy. But Duke women's tennis' Israeli freshman is persevering

Freshman Shavit Kimchi lunges for the ball during Duke's match with Virginia.
Freshman Shavit Kimchi lunges for the ball during Duke's match with Virginia.

It was a whirlwind. 

Shavit Kimchi finished basic training and started mandatory military service. She won the Israeli National Championship on the tennis court. Then her sponsors thinned. Suddenly, she had a scholarship offer from an American school. She took it. She moved continents and started college. On Oct. 7, Hamas attacked Israel, sparking an ongoing war in Gaza. 

“Everything happened so fast,” she told The Chronicle.

Kimchi is a 22-year-old true freshman on the Duke women’s tennis team. Playing mainly No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for the Blue Devils, her teammates and their supporters have looked to her to fill the shoes of former star and current pro Chloe Beck, who brought Duke to the NCAA Final Four in 2022. Those are lofty standards, and ones that Kimchi has been forced to shoulder on top of the normal difficulties of being a freshman and international student. That’s not to mention the unexpected hurdles that would come with being Israeli on a college campus this year, something Kimchi wasn’t expecting when she came to Duke. 

* * *

Less than a year ago, Kimchi would have been in Israel, an active member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But in the fall, when war broke out, Kimchi read the news from Durham. 

Growing up in Sdey Hemed, Israel, she started playing tennis when she was eight years old and never stopped — even while serving in the IDF.  As she worked as a Women’s Affairs Advisor to the Chief of Staff, Kimchi traveled the world for competitions. 

But when she began to lose sponsors — both due to the pandemic and other issues with the tennis association in Israel — Kimchi had to reevaluate. The financial sustainability of her tennis career didn’t look promising, especially once her military service was complete. She wasn’t going to quit on her dream of playing tennis professionally, so she looked to pursue a different avenue on a college team in the United States.

“I wanted to keep going,” Kimchi said. 

Duke checked off many of her boxes — including a full scholarship. 

Mandatory service in the IDF lasts two years for women, but Kimchi ended up serving two-and-a-half. After deciding to come to Duke in September 2022, she was given the option to join the team in January of 2023 in time for the spring season, but elected to stay in the IDF for an extra six months. She wanted to start college at the same time as everyone else in her class.

“I needed a second to process that I was moving out and starting a new chapter,” Kimchi said.

Kimchi started college with many of the struggles that all international students face: namely, adapting to a new country and a completely new environment. Even basic communication was hard. 

English is not Kimchi’s first language. She can speak just fine — she learned it growing up — but struggles with slang words, which change all the time. She has taken to keeping them all written down, with their meanings, in the notes app on her phone. 

On top of all that, she’s older. At 22, Kimchi has a different perspective and life experience than her fellow freshmen. She sees her classmates not as peers, but “more like my little siblings.” 

“They’re all so excited to go out and I’m like, ‘I’ve been there,’” she said. 

Having spent the last two years serving in the IDF, Kimchi hasn’t been in an academic environment recently, unlike her peers. She spent extra time revisiting school subjects that she felt had gotten rusty during her time in the military and playing tennis before arriving in Durham. 

Kimchi is disciplined. She adheres to a strict 6 a.m. wakeup call due to morning practices, which has paid off — she was named ACC Freshman of the Week five times this season and currently boasts a 12-8 record in singles. Just last week, Kimchi got the highest ITA ranking of her career at No. 58 in singles, impressive considering the brevity of her collegiate career, along with getting her 100th career singles win earlier this month. 

After taking off the ITA Regionals and N.C. State Invitational in the fall, Kimchi went back to the tennis court. She played No. 1 singles in Duke’s spring opener against SMU Jan. 13, and collected her first singles win of the spring season less than a week later.

The pressure of having such a prominent role on the team doesn’t get to Kimchi, simply because she doesn’t have time to dwell on it. She knows she can power through the uncomfortable. Before Duke, Kimchi won Israel’s National Championship title in December of 2022 — while going through basic training.

She describes basic training as the most miserable experience of her life. She shot drills with live M16s, slept in barracks with a bunch of girls she didn’t know, and often in extreme temperatures. She knows she can get through tennis pressures if she got through that.

“I've already been in a tougher situation, so now I know how to deal with it and it looks like a dream,” Kimchi said. “I don’t need to be worried about anything here. All I need to do is work hard, but I’m working hard on things I’m already comfortable in.”

* * *

The struggle for her this year comes from the war.

“I was shocked when it happened,” Kimchi said. “I felt like no one here really knew what I was going through.” 

She existed in a daze for the first few weeks after Oct. 7. She barely ate or slept, constantly refreshed the news on her phone hoping for new updates on the situation while awaiting contact from her family and friends back home. 

Through all of this, Kimchi still had to practice. She still had to study.

“I couldn’t do tennis,” she said. 

Kimchi, and the women's tennis team, were scheduled to compete in the ITA Regionals starting October 20. Kimchi told her coaches she couldn’t focus. Head coach Jamie Ashworth understood, letting her know that it was okay to take time off as long as she was there to support her teammates. 

“I’m not going to be able to fight because I feel so mentally down right now,” Kimchi said. “I can’t give it my 100%.” 

Most international students don’t have to worry about the safety of their friends and family in the IDF. Shavit’s younger sister Gaya, who is 18, is currently in a year-long program to prepare for the army before she begins service in November. Gaya decided to delay her service by one year in order to prepare for the position she wanted as a canine trainer. Whereas Shavit knew she would have an office job, her sister’s higher-level position brings more training and more worries for her family. 

And now Shavit is on a campus where the war has created real tension.

“I come here and adjust to the fact that it’s not just my side, another whole community that I hadn’t seen before exists,” Kimchi said. “You have to let them do whatever because it’s the same. Why am I allowed to raise the Israeli flag, but they’re not allowed to raise the Palestinian flag?”  

“Both sides get hurt,” she said. “I don’t want this war. I want peace. I want this to be over. I want everyone to be back in their lives.”

All the while, she keeps training. She keeps up contact with her friends and family back home. She’s studying for finals and practicing for the ACC tournament starting Thursday. She just signed up for classes in the fall. She worries about her sister.

“No matter how hard it gets, I remind myself that I need to get through it, doesn’t matter how,” Kimchi said. “I have to do whatever I can control and like the rest, what can I do? It’s out of my control.”

Though the war goes on, so does Kimchi.


Share and discuss “Shavit Kimchi's start to life in Durham hasn't been easy. But Duke women's tennis' Israeli freshman is persevering” on social media.