How the War in Ukraine Turned Tennis Into a Battlefield

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Before becoming a soldier, Stakhovsky was a pro tennis player, and a very successful one: He was ranked as high as 31 in the world and had more than $5 million in career winnings. He is best remembered for beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2013. I was there and watched slack-jawed as Stakhovsky, playing serve-and-volley tennis, a style that had become virtually obsolete, took out the then-seven-time champion on Centre Court. In the news conference that followed, the Ukrainian joked, “I can definitely tell my grandchildren that, yeah, I kicked the butt of Roger Federer.” He lost his next match, but the win over Federer ensured him a permanent place in tennis trivia. That he is now a combatant in war is hard to believe, and as I walked around Wimbledon this year, I found myself thinking about Stakhovsky and his journey from tennis whites to military fatigues.

In early August, while he was off-duty in Kyiv, I spoke with Stakhovsky by video. He told me that he was vacationing in Dubai with his family when the war started. The city was hosting a men’s tournament that week, and he said he was with two Russian players, Rublev and Karen Khachanov, the night before. Stakhovsky had just retired from tennis and was residing in Budapest; he had not lived in Ukraine since he was 12. But with his country under attack, he felt obliged to join the war effort. He left Dubai and arrived in Kyiv on Feb. 28, four days after the Russians invaded. “I did not have any other option,” he said. “I could not imagine sitting outside of Ukraine and screaming for other people to help Ukraine.”

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He said he was friends with a number of Russians when he was on the tour and had heard from a few of them. Mikhail Youzhny, a former Top 10 player, texted him periodically. “Sometimes I reply, sometimes I don’t,” Stakhovsky said. He told me that at the French Open last year, where he was trying to raise money for Ukraine, he ran into Khachanov in a hallway, and the Russian simply brushed past him. He mentioned a comment that Medvedev made at Wimbledon this year, about being in favor of peace. “Everybody is in favor of peace,” Stakhovsky said. “I’ve been in Bucha; I’ve seen the bodies. For us, unfortunately, peace is something that we will have to earn with blood.” He recalled that Medvedev’s parents had once approached him about coaching their son early in his pro career. (Medvedev did not reply to a request for comment, and Khachanov declined to comment.)

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Near the end of our conversation, we talked about the match against Federer, and I asked if he had been in touch with the Swiss star. Stakhovsky, who is 37, said that he had, and he began scrolling through his phone. He saw that Federer had reached out twice in March 2022, to check in on him and to express his sorrow over the situation. I brought up the comment that Stakhovsky had made about his grandchildren and kicking Federer’s butt. He laughed ruefully. “Now I just hope that I will get to see my grandkids,” he said.

Alexandr Dolgopolov, too, is in uniform for Ukraine. He played professionally for more than a decade and attained a career-high ranking of 13 before retiring in 2021. These days, he is a drone operator close to the front lines. He spoke to me from his apartment in Kyiv, where he was recuperating from a concussion he suffered when a shell landed near his trench. He was resigned to the danger he faces in combat. “They try to destroy us, we try to destroy them, that’s how it works,” he said with a shrug. He was wearing a Diadora T-shirt, a reminder of his past; Diadora is the Italian sportswear company that sponsored him.

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