Alex Dolgopolov thought nothing unusual about sleeping in his car last night after a warning came through that the military base near his home in Kyiv could be the target of a missile attack.
Somehow, after a while, the rhythms of war feel normal: the wailing of sirens, the horror stories passed between neighbors, the rubble he’s seen firsthand in small towns closer to the frontline. Even understanding the worst atrocities of the Russian invasion, which he is sure go far beyond the war crimes uncovered in Bucha, has become part of the daily survival ritual. Dolgopolov’s 15-year tennis career taught him how to numb his emotions, and less than a year after his retirement, he still thinks it’s the best way to “live and take the pain.”
But just as it has become all too familiar, Dolgopolov fears the world has grown too accustomed to what is happening in Ukraine. Wimbledon on Tuesday afternoon became the first Grand Slam to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating. But shortly after the announcement, both the men’s and women’s tours and players like Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova condemned the decision as unfair to individual athletes. For Dolgopolov, these positions are completely beside the point. Fair was a ship that sailed away in the first missile attack and the cost of someone like Daniil Medvedev missing from the tournament is irrelevant when compared to the prospect of what a Russian win at such a global event would mean.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a world tennis player or just a normal person in Russia,” he says. “If people are able to go on with their normal lives, it will be difficult to change Putin’s plans. Everyone has to feel [the sacrifice] because everyone in Ukraine feels it. Our people, our children, are dying and you can’t just close your eyes and be silent and pretend nothing is happening. Everyone must try to play their part to help, and ATP, like many other sports, should take a stronger stance. The scale of what is happening here is not [reflected] through their actions. Your actions are weaker.”
Dolgopolov had a very successful tennis career by most standards. He peaked at No. 13 in the world, earned well over £5m in prize money, shared the training pitches with Roger Federer and twice beat Rafael Nadal. He was a small, resilient and tenacious player who earned the nickname “The Dog” and was warmly received when he announced his retirement. He had envisioned a quiet life after so long on the Tour treadmill, but after Russia’s initial attacks launched he felt compelled to return home. “I couldn’t just watch from the outside when I saw everyone here trying to help,” he says.
He began his rifle training in Turkey, traveled from there to Croatia and then drove supplies to the border. From there, Dolgopolov took a train to Kyiv to avoid being intercepted by Russian troops entering the capital as the extent of destruction in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol was revealed. He was not in combat but helps provide aid to those most affected. “We ordered 50 bulletproof vests to take to the front lines,” he says. “We brought humanitarian aid to Chernihiv when there were Russians there and it wasn’t safe. I was written by a person from Kherson whose mother had a stroke and he was unable to get her medicine. So these are ways to help the army with money, food, medicine and weapons.”
He saw the burnt out cars, the broken houses, the people who lost so much on these trips. The cities, more deeply involved in the conflict and recently liberated from Russian occupation, are also beginning to tell their stories. “You see hundreds of posts on social media, people you know saying these stories are true, the killings, the rapes, it’s not just Bucha, it’s most of the places where Russian forces have been. “
Dolgopolov is not convinced that the level of violence has pierced the propaganda bubble that has hung over so much of Russia. He believes that is why their army was capable of such atrocities from the very beginning of the invasion, and regular reading of Russian Telegram channels has given him little optimism that the populace will ever see through the veil of Putin’s perversion. “I understand why so many people fall for it, because the way they process information is incredible,” he says.
While banning Russian players from Wimbledon may be a tiny bit in the context of the war, he hopes it can still help enlighten those who remain in the dark. “Wimbledon will not end the war, it’s just an additional sign that the world condemns Putin,” he says. “The more of these signals, whether it’s tennis or whether Fifa bans them from football, shows people that Russia is doing something wrong.”
Dolgopolov is more hopeful now, even if that emotion brings with it so much heartache. “I think we will win, it just depends on the price how many people we will lose to liberate our country,” he says. Kyiv feels safer, although he still often has to sleep in the parking lot. His family also returned to the city this week. Circumstances that should have been unimaginable have slowly turned into life as you know it. Somehow these are better days, even without an end in sight. Things may never feel normal again after her and so many other lives have been irreversibly altered, but there are parts of it that can be restored and slowly put back together. Tennis, Dolgopolov says, has a duty to be part of the effort to get there.
“When the war is over we can come back and talk about sports and normal life,” he says. “But at the moment I don’t see any pressure point that can stop that. I think the world is looking for one and every Russian needs to feel something to question their government. Tennis wants to stay away, I think that’s wrong.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/tennis/the-atps-stance-is-weak-wimbledon-is-right-ukraines-alex-dolgopolov-backs-ban-on-russian-players-41573420.html “ATP’s position is weak, Wimbledon is right” – Ukrainian Alex Dolgopolov supports the ban on Russian players