As tennis honors Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine, he reflects on shifting his focus from sports to the war.
TURIN, Italy — When professional tennis took a few minutes on Friday night at the ATP Tour Finals to honor a handful of players who had announced their retirement from the sport this year, one of them walked onto the court at the Pala Alpitour stadium wearing military fatigues.
That was Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine, whose retirement has unfolded differently from all the others.
Stakhovsky’s tennis career, which included eight ATP singles and doubles titles and an appearance at the 2012 Olympics, came to an abrupt end in February when he became a soldier. Stakhovsky, 36, knew nothing about shooting guns, throwing grenades or firing stingers at the time. Now, having spent much of the past months near the front lines in eastern Ukraine, he knows plenty.
“Everybody out there is tired,” he said on Friday night after the ceremony, in reference to Ukraine’s forces, who know that even as they make gains, Russia continues to kill civilians and hit infrastructure targets. “A lot of Ukrainian soldiers are dying, and I guess that’s the only things that we think about while we’re doing it.”
In recent months, he has patrolled and helped clear Ukraine’s recaptured cities. His next rotation in the eastern Donetsk region begins on Dec. 18.
The State of the War
- Explosion in Poland: A Ukrainian air-defense missile — not a Russian weapon — most likely caused a deadly explosion in a Polish village, a top NATO official and Poland’s president said, easing fears that the military alliance would become more deeply embroiled in the war.
- Retaking Kherson: On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers swept into the southern city of Kherson, seizing a major prize from the retreating Russian army and dealing a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin. Days after the liberation, evidence and accounts of torture are emerging.
- Infrastructure Attacks: In a relentless and intensifying barrage of missiles, Moscow is destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, depriving millions of heat, light and clean water. For Ukraine, keeping the lights on as winter looms has become one of its biggest battles.
- Beta Testing New Weapons: Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that Western officials predict could shape warfare for generations to come.
It is an existence that has little in common with the rarefied life he led before, traveling the world to play tennis and operating his winery, in Zakarpattia, near Ukraine’s western border, where he cultivated merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other grape varieties.
That earlier existence rarely enters his mind, Stakhovsky said, though he remains in contact with professional players like Elina Svitolina who send support and seek news from the battlefield. Most have left the country to pursue their careers and remain safe while sending financial and other forms of support back home.
“I think it’s harder when you’re out,” he said of those who had left, as they hunt for scraps of information, worry about family and friends, and struggle to adjust to war as a way of life. “Unfortunately, our body, the human being, we can adapt to do everything. So you adapt to shelling. You adapt to fear.”
As he spoke, Andrey Rublev of Russia took the court to play Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. Deniil Medvedev of Russia had played Novak Djokovic of Serbia that afternoon.
Stakhovsky and other players from Ukraine have said that Russian and Belarusian players should be barred from competition during the war. For the most part, professional tennis has not taken that step, instead banning those countries from team competition and removing any symbols of their countries, such as their flags.
Sports leaders say it is unfair to hold Russian and Belarusian athletes accountable for the actions of their governments, and while Stakhovsky acknowledges that point of view, he finds the silence from most Russian players shameful. Rublev has been the only male player to publicly plea for peace and support criticism of the war.
“Predominantly, all the Russian athletes or Russian tennis players are silent, and they are neutral and they say that, you know, ‘it’s politics for me,’” Stakhovsky said. “It’s not politics. It’s a war.”
History, he said, and maybe even their children, will judge them.
“At the end of the day, when the war will be over and the questions will be asked by their kids or anybody, ‘What have you done for it not to happen? What you have done for it to stop?’ they will not be able to answer that question, because they’ve done nothing,” Stakhovsky said. “They’ve been silent, and they have done nothing.”