TURIN, Italy — As professional tennis took a few minutes to honor a handful of players who announced their retirement from the sport this year at the ATP Tour Finals on Friday night at the ATP Tour Finals, one of them entered the court at the Pala Alpitour stadium in military fatigues .
That was Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky, whose retirement played out differently than any other.
Stakhovsky’s tennis career, which spanned eight ATP singles and doubles titles and an appearance at the 2012 Olympics, came to an abrupt end in February when he enlisted. Stakhovsky, 36, knew nothing about shooting guns, throwing grenades or firing spikes at the time. Now, having spent much of the last few months on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, he knows a lot.
“Everyone out there is tired,” he said Friday night after the ceremony, in reference to Ukraine’s armed forces knowing that even as Russia makes progress, it continues to kill civilians and hit infrastructure targets. “A lot of Ukrainian soldiers are dying and I think those are the only things we think about.”
In recent months he has patrolled Ukraine’s recaptured cities and helped evacuate them. Its next rotation in the eastern Donetsk region will begin on December 18.
It’s an existence that bears little relation to the rare life he previously led, as he traveled the world playing tennis and ran his winery in Zakarpattia, near Ukraine’s western border, brewing Merlot, Chardonnay, Growing Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape varieties.
That former existence rarely crosses his mind, Stakhovsky said, although he keeps in touch with pro players like Elina Svitolina who send support and seek news from the battlefield. Most have left the country to continue their careers and stay safe while sending financial and other forms of support home.
“I think it’s harder when you’re outside,” he said of those who left while searching for scraps of information, worrying about family and friends, and struggling to adjust to war as a way of life. “Unfortunately, our bodies, humans, can adapt to anything. So you adapt to the fire. You adapt to fear.”
As he spoke, Andrey Rublev from Russia entered the pitch to play Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece. Deniil Medvedev from Russia had played against Novak Djokovic from Serbia this afternoon.
Stakhovsky and other players from Ukraine have said that Russian and Belarusian players should be banned from competition during the war. Professional tennis for the most part did not take this step, instead excluding these countries from team competition and removing all symbols of their countries like their flags.
Sports leaders say it’s unfair to hold Russian and Belarusian athletes accountable for their governments’ actions, and while Stakhovsky acknowledges this point of view, he finds the silence of most Russian players shameful. Rublev was the only male player to publicly plead for peace and supported criticism of the war.
“Mostly all Russian athletes or Russian tennis players are silent and they’re neutral and they say, 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 is over and the questions are being asked by their children or anyone else, ‘What did you do to keep that from happening? What did you do to make it stop?’ They won’t be able to answer that question because they didn’t do anything,” Stakhovsky said. “They were silent and did nothing.”