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5 July 2023

When war comes to Wimbledon

As Russian competitors return to SW19, the Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky continues to fight on the front line.

By Harry Eyres

Ten years ago, on a late June evening in London SW19, the Ukrainian tennis ­player Sergiy Stakhovsky committed ­regicide. He beat the reigning champion Roger Federer – probably the greatest grass court player of all time – in the second round of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships. He outmanoeuvred and out-thought Federer in a brilliant tactical performance, serving and volleying, mixing his pace. As I write, Stakhovsky is serving not aces, but on the front line in the Ukrainian army. He was recently involved in the fighting around Bakhmut, as part of a mortar unit.

No male Ukrainian tennis player is competing at Wimbledon this year, for obvious reasons, though seven female players have made it to the main draw. This year they will face the ­possibility of encountering a competitor from Russia on the other side of the net, or from Russia’s close ally Belarus.

Last year Wimbledon, alone among the four Grand Slam tournaments, banned Russian and Belarusian players from entering. Yet this year, under pressure from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of men’s professional tennis, and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), those bans were lifted by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the All England Club (AELTC). It was “an incredibly difficult decision”, according to the chair of the AELTC, Ian Hewitt. The ATP and WTA fined Wimbledon and the LTA last year, and threatened to remove the licences for tournaments such as Queen’s. After the bans were lifted, the fines from the ATP and the WTA were halved.

At last month’s French Open in Paris, the crowd booed the Ukrainian players Marta Kostyuk and Elina Svitolina when they refused to shake hands with the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the current world No 2 and one of the favourites to win Wimbledon; Sabalenka beat both of them. Kostyuk said the French crowd “should be ashamed of themselves”, while Svitolina accused Sabalenka of inflaming the situation by coming to the net at the end of the match, when she knew her opponent would refuse to shake her hand. Sabalenka, for her part, subsequently withdrew from a scheduled press conference after her third-round Roland Garros win over Kamilla Rakhimova.

The Belarusian said she did not feel “safe” and had to protect her mental health following a grilling by a Ukrainian reporter after her defeat of Kostyuk, in which she was asked pointed questions about the Russian invasion, and her former support of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. You could argue she was somewhat safer than Sergiy Stakhovsky, or the relatives of Ukrainian ­players in Kyiv or Kherson, facing repeated missile attacks.

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I very much doubt a Wimbledon crowd would boo a Ukrainian player for failing to shake hands with a Russian or Belarusian opponent. “The support we got [for Ukraine last year] from the UK was massive,” says Svitolina, who has emerged as a leader and effective spokesperson for women’s tennis and for her beleaguered country more generally.

A former world No 3, Svitolina recently returned to the tour after becoming a mother. Having won the Internationaux de Strasbourg in May, she donated her winnings to humanitarian aid for Ukrainian children; she is also actively involved in the Rebuild Ukraine programme, which raises funds to restore buildings destroyed or damaged in the war. Svitolina tends to dismiss incidents such as the booing in Paris as “a lot of rubbish”.

[See also: The broker of Belarus]

Is there a possibility that tennis might offer, not a solution, but a glimmer of hope in relation to the barbarity of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the ­appalling suffering, destruction and loss of life it has caused?

In Wilfred Owen’s poem Strange Meeting”, written not long before he was shot by a ­German sniper in France in 1918, the poet meets the “enemy” he killed, and finds a soul-brother, someone as dedicated as he is to telling “the pity of war”. In April, the leading Russian tennis player Daria Kasatkina praised Wimbledon’s decision to pay for the accommodation of Ukrainian players during the grass court season. “[Ukrainian players] cannot go back home, they have to be always on the road… so I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Kasatkina.

In June, during the brief Prigozhin mutiny, Kasatkina spoke of her fears for her family in Voronezh (“I’m very worried for the people I love”) but added that Ukrainians “are experiencing a way worse situation”. Kasatkina’s public statements seem more convincing than those of the top male Russian player, Daniil Medvedev, whose condemnation of Putin’s brutal war has gone no further than a wish for “peace throughout the world”.

As for Stakhovsky, who at the beginning of the war said he hoped he would not have to use a gun, the unlikely conqueror of ­Federer has become battle-hardened. ­“Seeing bodies doesn’t matter to us any more,” he said in an interview with the French sports daily, L’Équipe. “Unfortunately, humans can adapt to anything. So, we adapt to the bombardments. We adapt to fear. And we adapt to death.”

Sport, like poetry in WH Auden’s elegy for WB Yeats, “makes nothing happen”. But it can sometimes show how the human urge to compete can be transmuted into something beautiful and unsanguinary, an embodiment of grace under pressure. Federer has been the greatest exponent of that in our lifetimes, but perhaps Sergiy Stakhovsky, in a dugout near Donetsk, can reflect on his own moment of glory on the south London grass, and dream of better days.

[See also: Why Wimbledon is made for radio]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia