Alex Dolgopolov: ‘The ATP’s stance is weak, Wimbledon is right to ban Russian players’

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Alex Dolgopolov (left) delivers aid with a friend to Chernihiv (Instragram/@alexdolgopolov)
Alex Dolgopolov (left) delivers aid with a friend to Chernihiv (Instragram/@alexdolgopolov)

Alex Dolgopolov thought nothing unusual of sleeping in his car last night after a warning came through that the military base near his home in Kyiv might be the target of a missile attack. Somehow the rhythms of war start to feel normal after a while: the wail of sirens, the horror stories passed between neighbours, the wreckage he’s witnessed in small towns first-hand closer to the front line. Even coming to understand the worst atrocities of Russia’s invasion, which he is sure extend far beyond the war crimes discovered in Bucha, has become part of the daily ritual of survival. Dolgopolov’s 15-year tennis career taught him how to numb his emotions and, less than a year after retiring, he still finds it is the best way “to manage to live and take the pain”.

But in the same way it has become all too familiar for him, Dolgopolov fears the world has become too accustomed to what is happening in Ukraine. On Tuesday afternoon, Wimbledon became the first grand slam to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating. But shortly after the announcement, the men’s and women’s tours, as well as players such as Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova, all condemned the decision as unfair on individual athletes. For Dolgopolov, those positions miss the point entirely. Fair was a ship that sailed away on the first missile strike and the cost of someone like Daniil Medvedev missing a the tournament is irrelevant when set against the prospect of what a Russian winning such a global event would represent.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a world tennis player or just a regular person in Russia,” he says. “If people are able to keep on living their regular lives, it’s going to be tough to change the plans of Putin. Everyone has to feel [the sacrifice] because everyone in Ukraine is feeling it. Our people, our children, are dying and you cannot just close your eyes and be silent and pretend nothing is happening. Everyone has to try and play their role to help and the ATP should have a stronger stance like many others sports. The magnitude of what is happening here is not [reflected] by their actions. Their actions are weaker.”

Dolgopolov had a very successful tennis career by most standards. He peaked at No 13 in the world rankings, earned well over £5m in prize money, shared practice courts with Roger Federer and twice beat Rafael Nadal. He was a short, elastic and tenacious player, earning himself the nickname “The Dog”, and was met with a warm reception when he announced his retirement. He had envisaged a quiet life after so long on the treadmill of the tour but, after Russia’s first assaults were launched, he felt compelled to return home. “I couldn’t just watch from outside when I saw everyone united here trying to help,” he says.

He began training to use a rifle in Turkey, from where he travelled to Croatia and then drove supplies to the border. From there, Dolgopolov took a train into Kyiv to avoid being intercepted by Russian troops who were encroaching on the capital as the scale of destruction in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol started to be laid bare. He hasn’t been into combat but is helping to deliver aid to those who have been worst affected. “We ordered 50 bulletproof vests to take to the front,” he says. “We took some humanitarian aid to Chernihiv when there were still Russians there and it wasn’t safe. I had one person write to me from Kherson whose mother had a stroke and he couldn’t get her medicine. So these are ways to help, with money, food, medicine, and weapons for the army.”

He has seen the burnt-out cars, the broken homes, the people who’ve lost so much when making those trips. The towns deeper in the conflict who’ve recently been freed of Russian occupation are starting to tell their stories too. “You see hundreds of posts on social media, people you know who say these stories are true, the murders, the rapes, it’s not only Bucha, it’s most of the places where Russian forces were standing.”

Dolgopolov isn’t convinced that the extent of the violence has pierced the bubble of propaganda that reigns over so much of Russia. He thinks that is why their army was capable of such atrocities from the outset of the invasion and regularly reading Russian Telegram channels has brought him little optimism that the population will ever see through the veil of Putin’s spin. “I understand why so many people fall for it because the way they turn information is unbelievable,” he says.

And so while banning Russian players from Wimbledon may only be a tiny piece in the context of war, he hopes it can still help to enlighten those who remain in the dark. “Wimbledon isn’t going to stop the war, it’s just an extra sign of the world condemning Putin,” he says. “The more of these signals, if it’s tennis or if it’s Fifa blocking them from football, it shows the people that Russia is doing something wrong.”

Dolgopolov is more hopeful now, even if that emotion in itself carries so much grief. “I think we will win, it just depends on the price, how many people we’re going to lose to free our land,” he says. Kyiv feels safer, even if he still often has to spend a night sleeping in the car park. His family returned to the city this week too. Circumstances that should be unimaginable have slowly transformed into life as they know it. Somehow, these are better days, even without an end in sight. Things may never be able to feel normal again after theirs and so many other lives have been changed irreversibly, but there are pieces of it that can be recovered and slowly healed back together. Tennis, Dolgopolov says, has a duty to be part of the effort to get there.

“Once the war is over we can come back and speak about sport and regular life,” he says. “But right now, I don’t see a pressure point that can stop this. I think the world is looking for one and every Russian has to feel something so they question their government. Tennis wants to keep away, I think it’s wrong.”

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