How the War in Ukraine Turned Tennis Into a Battlefield
For Ukrainian players, as well as those from Russia and its allies, the unceasing conflict at home has bled into the game. Now they face off at the U.S. Open.
Credit...Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
By Michael Steinberger
It was a few days before the start of Wimbledon this summer, and Elina Svitolina, just off a flight from Geneva, had come to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to check in for the tournament. She was returning after a year’s absence. “It feels like it has been 10 years,” she said as she got out of the car. A lot had happened since she last competed at Wimbledon, in 2021. She had given birth to a daughter named Skaï, the first child for her and her husband, the French player Gaël Monfils. Also, her country, Ukraine, had been invaded by Russia.
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She had traveled to London without her family: Monfils had withdrawn from Wimbledon because of an injury and was home in Switzerland with the baby. Svitolina, 28, was dressed in khaki pants, a black tank top and Dior sneakers, although the Diors were about to be retired after the recent signing of a deal with Adidas. John Morris, her agent, had driven her to the club. Before heading inside to collect her credentials, she met him at the rear of his car. He reached into the trunk and picked up a large cardboard box. “Starlink?” Svitolina asked. It was a joking reference to the satellites manufactured and launched into orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which are providing critical internet access for Ukrainian soldiers. Morris chuckled and handed her a reel of strings for her rackets.
While made in jest, Svitolina’s comment was a reminder of the shadow that the war in Ukraine cast over tennis. Perhaps no sport has been affected as profoundly. That is a function of numbers — there are lots of players from both countries — and proximity. At tennis tournaments, the locker rooms, lounges and practice facilities are shared, and it can be hard to avoid people you would rather not see. Russia’s attack on Ukraine plunged professional tennis into a cold war of its own, one that had destroyed friendships and sown animosity and mistrust on and off the court.
Tensions were especially high at Wimbledon. In 2022, the All England Club had barred players from Russia and from Belarus (because of the support its government was providing Moscow). This year, they were back, much to the displeasure of Svitolina and other Ukrainian players, who have made it their practice not to shake hands with opponents from either country, a break with custom that has drawn the ire of some fans. The Russians and Belarusians were designated as neutral athletes; tennis’s governing bodies were not allowing them to compete under their national flags.
Since the start of the war, Svitolina has played a significant role not just in shaping tennis’s response to the conflict but also in galvanizing international support for Ukraine. She has done this through the work of her foundation, which bears her name, and also as an ambassador for United24, an organization established by the Ukrainian government to raise money for rebuilding efforts. She was named to the post by President Volodymr Zelensky, who saw Svitolina when she visited Kyiv in February (“a very powerful meeting,” she says).
But Svitolina, a former world No.3, has also demonstrated a willingness to stand up to her own government. She rejected calls from officials to boycott tournaments in which Russians and Belarusians were taking part; in her view, it was essential to be at those events as a way of reminding the world of her country’s plight. Svitolina has become the de facto leader of the Ukrainian contingent on the pro tour, which is testament to her stature as a player and her mediating skills. “We are all very different, and we need one person that is more diplomatic,” says Marta Kostyuk, a fellow Ukrainian player. “Elina is the most neutral, and I think pregnancy and the baby made her very balanced.”
In April, Svitolina returned to tennis from maternity leave. She admits that, because of the war, she came back sooner than she might have otherwise — she hoped to give her compatriots some reason to cheer and also feared that the world was losing interest in Ukraine. In May, she won a tournament in Strasbourg, beating Russia’s Anna Blinkova in the championship match, then defeated Blinkova and another Russian, Daria Kasatkina, to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open. By the time she left Paris, Svitolina had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. She was not optimistic, however, about her chances at Wimbledon. She was a semifinalist in 2019, yet still couldn’t muster much affection for grass-court tennis. “Grass is for cows,” she likes to say.
But once play started, Svitolina found her footing. She won a tricky first-round match on Centre Court against Venus Williams. As she progressed through the draw, it was clear that she was benefiting from recent adjustments she had made to her game: Long known as a counterpuncher, she was serving harder and hitting more aggressively from the baseline. But after she ousted the Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round, sealing the victory with an ace, it was hard not to think that something beyond her shotmaking was propelling her. Chris Evert, who called the match for ESPN, choked up as she talked about the inspiration Svitolina was drawing from Ukraine’s tragedy.
In the quarterfinals, Svitolina overcame the world No.1, Iga Swiatek, 7-5, 6-7, 6-2, the biggest win for a Ukrainian player at Wimbledon since Sergiy Stakhovsky upset Roger Federer in the second round in 2013. That Stakhovsky was now in uniform for Ukraine and seeing combat added to the poignancy of her achievement. In the semifinals, though, she was beaten by the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, who went on to capture the title. Svitolina told me later that the loss was “sad and upsetting” and that it took her several days to get over it. On the other hand, she heard from lots of people that her performance had buoyed the spirits of her countrymen. Though her Wimbledon had ended in defeat, it still felt like a victory for Ukraine.
In mid-August, Svitolina pulled out of a tournament in Cincinnati with a foot injury, hoping that the extra rest would help her be ready for the U.S. Open in New York, which began on Monday and where she is seeded No.26. When she resumed playing this spring, she was ranked 1,081 (and dropped as low as 1,344 at one point). That she has risen so quickly while juggling motherhood and her advocacy for Ukraine is extraordinary. A deep run in New York would be another milestone in a comeback that has been fueled by emotion as much as talent.
The fall of the Iron Curtain sparked a tennis boom in parts of the former Soviet Union. The patronage of Boris Yeltsin, an avid player who steered government money to the sport, helped turn Russia into a tennis colossus. (He also chose an obscure former K.G.B. agent, Vladimir Putin, to be his replacement.) In the 1990s and 2000s, Maria Sharapova, Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov all won multiple grand-slam titles. Their successes, and the wealth that they amassed, naturally encouraged Russian parents to push their kids into tennis, establishing a virtuous cycle in which success begot more success. Russia currently has five women inside the Top 30. On the men’s side, Daniil Medvedev, who won the 2021 U.S. Open, and Andrey Rublev are Top 10 fixtures.
Tennis also blossomed in two former Soviet republics, Belarus and Ukraine, and for similar reasons: It was seen as a glamorous and lucrative pursuit. “Tennis was the only way to a better life,” the former Ukrainian pro Olga Savchuk told me, a comment that helps explain the ubiquity of Slavic surnames in pro tennis. Stephane Gurov, an agent who has represented a number of Eastern European players, says that the “Moscow-Minsk-Kyiv triangle” abounded in seemingly can’t-miss prospects.
Svitolina was one of them (and Gurov was her previous agent). She was born in Odesa, on the Black Sea coast. She comes from an athletic family: Her father was a wrestler, and her mother was a rower who later became a bowling champion. Her parents steered her and her brother, Yulian, to tennis. Her precocity was quickly apparent, and when she was just 11, a Ukrainian businessman named Yuri Shapovolov offered to back her in exchange for a share of her future earnings. Shapovolov lived in Kharkiv, and Svitolina and her mother relocated so that she could train there; her father visited when he could. Svitolina was acutely aware that much depended on her tennis. “It was a lot of pressure,” she says. “It was a challenging time for my family and for me.”
In 2010, at age 15, Svitolina won the French Open junior title. After that, she received an offer to train full time at an academy near Brussels run by Justine Henin, a former world No.1. Svitolina moved to Belgium with her mother and has lived in Western Europe ever since. One paradox of the war is that many of the tennis players caught up in the conflict are expatriates. Medvedev has been based in France for years. Rublev relocated to Spain as a teenager. Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian star currently ranked second on the women’s tour, makes her home in Florida.
Svitolina turned pro not long after winning the French Open juniors. Her best year on tour has been 2019, when she reached the semifinals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and finished the season ranked third. That was also the year she began dating Monfils, one of the sport’s more popular figures. The couple married in 2021.
Svitolina was pregnant when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. She was still competing and was in Mexico for a tournament — where, as poor timing would have it, she was scheduled to face a Russian, Anastasia Potapova, in her first match. Svitolina, who was the top seed, announced that she would not play against any Russians or Belarusians unless tennis’s governing bodies followed the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee and decreed that they could compete only as neutrals. Officials were already discussing such a move, and within hours, they adopted it as their policy. Svitolina ended up playing Potapova and beat her 6-2, 6-1. At the conclusion of the match, they shook hands; it would be the last time Svitolina shook hands with a Russian or Belarusian opponent.
She played two more tournaments but found herself unable to focus. The images from Ukraine horrified her, and she was also trying to get her family out. “I was so stressed about everything — about my grandmother, about my parents,” she told me. “It was really tough to keep sane.” Her parents initially insisted on staying; she finally prevailed on them to go, and they reached Poland after a harrowing two-day drive. But her 86-year-old grandmother, who lives in Odesa, remained behind, mostly because she couldn’t bear to be apart from her cat. Svitolina visited her grandmother when she went to Ukraine in February. From Odesa, she traveled to Kyiv, where she met Zelensky and also hosted a tennis clinic for some 300 kids.
During one of our pre-tournament conversations at Wimbledon, we sat in the otherwise empty stands overlooking No.3 Court, where under a bright late-afternoon sun Svitolina reflected on her Ukrainian identity. She had spoken Russian most of her life; it was the principal language in Odesa and Kharkiv, and Russian culture was a touchstone when she was growing up. While the war had shattered any feelings of kinship with Russia, Svitolina said that there was already a deep sense of estrangement, which she attributed to the country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the conflict it initiated in the Donbas region that same year. She noticed a shift in attitude in the abuse she received on social media when she competed in tournaments in Russia. The messages came not just from Russians, but also from Ukrainians who accused her of betrayal. As Svitolina learned more about the situation in Crimea and Donbas, she came to think it had indeed been a mistake to continue to play in Russia. “I really regret going after 2014,” she said.
Before the war, Svitolina had been studying Ukrainian, and she was now basically fluent. Russian, on the other hand, was a dead language to her; she was no longer willing to use it. Nor was she alone in that regard. “So many of my friends who spoke only Russian,” she said, “now speak only Ukrainian.”
When the draws for Wimbledon were announced on the Friday before the tournament, Svitolina learned that she wouldn’t face a Russian until at least the fourth round. She had told me that she felt extra motivation when Russians were across the net from her, but also added pressure. “It’s always in the back of the mind, always there,” she said. But even if she didn’t end up playing any Russians at Wimbledon — she didn’t — there was no avoiding them this year, a point vividly demonstrated later that day. Svitolina was returning to the locker room after practice when Medvedev, a hoodie pulled over his head, came walking in the opposite direction. At first, he eyed her warily, but as they passed each other, he smiled and gave her a nod. It was an encounter that captured the awkwardness of the current moment, when even a simple acknowledgment seems noteworthy and freighted with meaning.
The All England Club had prohibited Russian and Belarusian players from competing at Wimbledon last year in part because it feared that if one of them claimed the title, the result would be used for propaganda purposes back home. The thought of Princess Kate, the royal patron of the club, handing the trophy to the victor was surely a source of particular dread. In the end, the tournament escaped a public-relations debacle thanks to a technicality: The women’s championship was won by Elena Rybakina, who was born in Russia but switched nationalities in 2018 and now plays for Kazakhstan. (The Russian Tennis Federation claimed credit for her success anyway, referring to her as “our product.”) Wimbledon was the only one of the four grand-slam events to bar the Russians and Belarusians, and it proved to be a costly decision: The men’s and women’s tours stripped Wimbledon of its ranking points and fined the Lawn Tennis Association, which administers British tennis, roughly $1 million. Facing possibly even harsher sanctions this year, the All England Club and the L.T.A. agreed to let those players come back. In a statement, the L.T.A. defiantly said that barring them had been “the right course of action” and made clear it had been strong-armed into reversing its position.
The view of the tours is that Russian and Belarusian players should not be punished for the misdeeds of their governments. Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, told me that his organization deplored Russia’s behavior and was eager to support the Ukrainian players. But he went on to say that the W.T.A.’s rules were clear and that “the individual athlete should not necessarily be penalized as the result of decisions that are being made by political leaders.” He added that suspending the Russians and Belarusians would establish an unfortunate precedent and would make tennis a hostage to geopolitics. Simon said that the W.T.A.’s “unique situation in this terrible conflict is that we have athletes on both sides of the conflict, and that are being affected in many different ways.”
The Ukrainian players contend that the Putin regime is waging a genocidal war and that allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete internationally amounts to a moral abdication on the part of tennis’s overseers. “Wars are cruel,” says Marta Kostyuk, a Kyiv native now ranked 37 in the world. “But the way this war is, it’s a different level. The Russians do not want us to exist as a nation. They want to eliminate every single one of us.” In her opinion, it was “sickening” that tennis was permitting the Russians and Belarusians to continue to play. If they were banned, she said, it would force them to reckon with the atrocities being committed by their countries. “They will sit at home and watch the news and read some articles,” she said. “They will actually have time to sit and think, What is this that we are doing wrong that we are not allowed to compete?” If tennis wasn’t willing to sideline the Russians and Belarusians, Kostyuk wanted to see them “pressured everywhere they are.”
Another Ukrainian, Lesia Tsurenko, expressed similar sentiments when she and I spoke on a terrace at Wimbledon. A couple of Russian players were milling about. Tsurenko, who wore a Ukrainian flag ribbon on her shirt, found their presence unsettling. “It makes me stressed so much,” she said. She was friendly with Russian players before the war but told me that only one of them had reached out to express regret over the conflict. The others would no longer even acknowledge her. “You walk, and people are just turning the head away from you,” as she put it. She said there was no chance of ever reconciling: “For me, all these people, they don’t exist anymore.” Citing opinion polls in Russia that showed strong support for the war, Tsurenko said she now believed that most of the Russian players also backed it. “You look around at these people who never said anything to you, and you wonder. Maybe they feel the same way. Maybe they support it. You have to assume they do.”
Tsurenko said she was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness when the war broke out but took some comfort in the financial contribution that she and other Ukrainian players had made to the defense of their homeland. They had all pitched in to buy a tractor for troops in southern Ukraine, who were using it to dig trenches. It was a gesture of solidarity with the country’s armed forces, whose ranks include two of the most accomplished male tennis players that Ukraine has ever produced.
Sergiy Stakhovsky is a member of special operations for the Security Service of Ukraine. His unit, he says, is heavily involved in the fighting and deploys a range of weapons — mortars, javelin and stinger missiles, drones. He has seen action in Bakhmut, the war’s longest and deadliest battle. He has also survived several near-misses. Last summer, a rocket exploded close to the armored patrol he was in; the blast wave knocked the vehicle off the road. Stakhovsky says that missile attacks hardly faze him now (“Everything is happening so fast, you have no time to [expletive] your pants”). But he admits that he still finds artillery fire unnerving.
Before becoming a soldier, Stakhovsky was a pro tennis player, and a very successful one: He was ranked as high as 31 in the world and had more than $5 million in career winnings. He is best remembered for beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2013. I was there and watched slack-jawed as Stakhovsky, playing serve-and-volley tennis, a style that had become virtually obsolete, took out the then-seven-time champion on Centre Court. In the news conference that followed, the Ukrainian joked, “I can definitely tell my grandchildren that, yeah, I kicked the butt of Roger Federer.” He lost his next match, but the win over Federer ensured him a permanent place in tennis trivia. That he is now a combatant in war is hard to believe, and as I walked around Wimbledon this year, I found myself thinking about Stakhovsky and his journey from tennis whites to military fatigues.
In early August, while he was off-duty in Kyiv, I spoke with Stakhovsky by video. He told me that he was vacationing in Dubai with his family when the war started. The city was hosting a men’s tournament that week, and he said he was with two Russian players, Rublev and Karen Khachanov, the night before. Stakhovsky had just retired from tennis and was residing in Budapest; he had not lived in Ukraine since he was 12. But with his country under attack, he felt obliged to join the war effort. He left Dubai and arrived in Kyiv on Feb. 28, four days after the Russians invaded. “I did not have any other option,” he said. “I could not imagine sitting outside of Ukraine and screaming for other people to help Ukraine.”
He said he was friends with a number of Russians when he was on the tour and had heard from a few of them. Mikhail Youzhny, a former Top 10 player, texted him periodically. “Sometimes I reply, sometimes I don’t,” Stakhovsky said. He told me that at the French Open last year, where he was trying to raise money for Ukraine, he ran into Khachanov in a hallway, and the Russian simply brushed past him. He mentioned a comment that Medvedev made at Wimbledon this year, about being in favor of peace. “Everybody is in favor of peace,” Stakhovsky said. “I’ve been in Bucha; I’ve seen the bodies. For us, unfortunately, peace is something that we will have to earn with blood.” He recalled that Medvedev’s parents had once approached him about coaching their son early in his pro career. (Medvedev did not reply to a request for comment, and Khachanov declined to comment.)
Near the end of our conversation, we talked about the match against Federer, and I asked if he had been in touch with the Swiss star. Stakhovsky, who is 37, said that he had, and he began scrolling through his phone. He saw that Federer had reached out twice in March 2022, to check in on him and to express his sorrow over the situation. I brought up the comment that Stakhovsky had made about his grandchildren and kicking Federer’s butt. He laughed ruefully. “Now I just hope that I will get to see my grandkids,” he said.
Alexandr Dolgopolov, too, is in uniform for Ukraine. He played professionally for more than a decade and attained a career-high ranking of 13 before retiring in 2021. These days, he is a drone operator close to the front lines. He spoke to me from his apartment in Kyiv, where he was recuperating from a concussion he suffered when a shell landed near his trench. He was resigned to the danger he faces in combat. “They try to destroy us, we try to destroy them, that’s how it works,” he said with a shrug. He was wearing a Diadora T-shirt, a reminder of his past; Diadora is the Italian sportswear company that sponsored him.
Dolgopolov was very much enjoying his post-tennis life prior to the war. A few days before the conflict began, he fled to Turkey with his mother and sister. But he quickly decided he needed to return to Ukraine to help however he could. “It was a moral thing,” he said. Back in Kyiv, he went through some rudimentary training and enlisted shortly thereafter. He said fellow soldiers are aware that he was a famous tennis player but treat him no differently from anyone else. In addition to fighting the war, Dolgopolov chronicles it on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. During Wimbledon, he posted a photo of himself in what looked to be a trench with some greenery visible just above his helmet; his caption asked, “Does this count as grass court season?” The contempt he has for Russia extends to its tennis stars. He dismissed the idea that Russian players aren’t condemning the war because they fear their government. Noting that many of them reside abroad, Dolgopolov said, “If they don’t live in Russia, why are they silent?”
In July 2022, five months into the war, the Russian player Daria Kasatkina — known to just about everyone as Dasha — did a series of video interviews with a Russian blogger in which she described the conflict as a “nightmare” and expressed sympathy for her Ukrainian peers. She also disclosed that she was gay and in a relationship with another woman, and she criticized Russia’s government for discriminating against the L.G.B.T.Q. community. When the interviewer, alluding to the Putin regime’s effort to stifle voices of opposition, suggested that it might be dangerous for Kasatkina, tennis’s highest-ranked Russian woman, to return home, she broke down in tears.
The conversation was candid and raw, and all the more striking because most Russian and Belarusian players seemed determined to avoid any discussion of the war. That’s still the case. Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka started her first news conference at Wimbledon this year by saying, “I’m not going to talk about politics.” Apart from occasional “I’m for peace” platitudes, the Russians and Belarusians have largely been silent about the conflict. Many people around the game (aside from the Ukrainians) assume that most of them are against it but don’t want to say so publicly because they fear retribution.
Only a few players have dared to speak out. Rublev, after winning a match at the Dubai tournament last year, wrote on a courtside television camera, “No war please,” a gesture that led to headlines around the world. Back in Dubai for the same event this past March, Rublev reiterated his position, telling journalists, “You cannot act like nothing happened, because it’s horrible,” a comment that could have been interpreted as a rebuke of his compatriots on the tour. (Rublev declined to be interviewed for this article.) But it is the 26-year-old Kasatkina who has effectively become a racquet-wielding dissident — and her criticism of the war and of the repressive climate in Russia has drawn the wrath of the Kremlin.
As it happens, Kasatkina and Rublev are both represented by John Morris, who is also Svitolina’s agent, which makes for an intriguing web of relationships. Svitolina signed with Morris, who is British, over the winter; she told me that she would not have done so if he worked with any Russians other than Rublev and Kasatkina. She and Kasatkina met in the fourth round of the French Open, in June. Svitolina prevailed, and though she didn’t shake hands with the Russian, the two women acknowledged each other at the net, and Svitolina said later that she was “really thankful” for Kasatkina’s opposition to the war and called her “a brave one.” Kasatkina, who is currently ranked No.13, has also won the admiration of other Ukrainians. “She has bigger balls than all the Russian male players combined,” Stakhovsky told me.
Under Russian law, Kasatkina could be fined and possibly even jailed for denouncing the war and for publicly discussing her sexuality. It is possible the authorities would leave her alone, but given her prominence, that cannot be assumed. Morris told me that the police had visited her Moscow apartment (she wasn’t home at the time and has not been back in Russia since it attacked Ukraine). A member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, reportedly called for her to be classified as a foreign agent. While Morris and the rest of Kasatkina’s team believe that she is safe outside Russia, they are not taking any chances: They are mindful of putting her on flights that go anywhere near Russian airspace.
I spoke to Kasatkina one afternoon at Wimbledon. Her partner, the retired figure skater Natalia Zabiiako, sat with us. Kasatkina said she was happy to be back at Wimbledon and gratified by the reaction of the fans. “I’m so thankful to the crowd and the people to welcome me so warmly, especially after what happened last year,” she told me. Being forced to miss Wimbledon was painful, she went on to say, but she understood the decision to exclude her and other Russian players: “Russia is in the war, and everything can be propaganda.”
She explained her decision to criticize the conflict and to come out as gay. “Everything was just so messed up already,” she said. “It’s a war. The laws in our country are getting worse and worse. I realize to be a gay person in Russia, it’s becoming impossible. And all this together makes me say what I feel and what I want to say. And I just couldn’t be silent anymore about myself, about the war.” Kasatkina also believed she had an obligation to use the platform that tennis has afforded her to speak up on behalf of fellow Russians who had been silenced or cowed by the government: “I just felt that as a public person, this is what I can do, and I did it.”
Kasatkina has three brothers. Two reside in Canada. The other, Alex, travels with her. She said all four siblings had hoped that their parents would leave Russia, but Kasatkina said her mother and father were older and didn’t want to have to start new lives in an unfamiliar place. According to Alex, their mother had recently visited Kasatkina in Spain. But for the moment, there was no possibility of Kasatkina’s traveling to Russia to see her parents. “It’s not a good time for me,” she said. “You never know what can happen there, because now the police can do anything.” I asked what her parents thought of the views she had expressed and what she had revealed about herself. “They support me, of course,” she replied. “I’m their daughter.”
She emphasized that her issue was not with Russia but, rather, with its government. “I really love my country,” Kasatkina said. “I love the people.” I mentioned that there had been speculation about Russian players possibly seeking citizenship from other nations in order to be able to travel more easily and to escape what they perceived as the stigmatization of Russian athletes. She didn’t name names but said it was true: “Some of them are already switching.” She indicated that she was leaving her options open. “I don’t know; let’s see,” she said. “Everything also depends on whether we would be allowed to compete or not.” (In late July, it was reported that the Russian players Vera Zvonareva and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova were denied entry to Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively, where they had planned to take part in tournaments.)
I asked Kasatkina if it was hard not being able to play under her nation’s flag. She said she didn’t mind being designated a neutral but was considering suggesting an alternative to the women’s tour. “I want to ask the W.T.A. if I can play under the rainbow flag,” Kasatkina said with a laugh.
At Wimbledon, players fine-tune their games mostly on the All England Club’s practice courts. But before the main-draw matches begin, they are allowed to hit on those that will be used for competition (breaking them in while also trying to keep the grass pristine is a delicate balance). On that Saturday prior to the start of play, Svitolina practiced on a tournament court with Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, from Slovakia. Afterward, a man approached Svitolina. They spoke briefly in Ukrainian and posed for a picture together.
He told me his name was Seva Kachanov. He was originally from Kharkiv but came to Britain 12 years ago and worked as an actuary in London. He still had relatives in Kharkiv, he said. A friend had given him a pass to be on the grounds of the All England Club that afternoon, and he had wanted to see Svitolina and to thank her for all she was doing on behalf of their country. “I’m very proud of Elina,” he said. That she was playing again at the highest level was emblematic of Ukraine’s resilience. “The whole world can see what Ukrainians are like,” Kachanov said. He called Svitolina a “symbol of resistance and defiance” and said her presence at Wimbledon conveyed a powerful message: “We are still here.”
Later that afternoon, Svitolina visited Centre Court; she would be playing there in two days, against Venus Williams, and thought it would be fun to have a look around before the crowds descended. Billie Jean King was coming off the court after hitting with a club member and greeted Svitolina warmly. She asked about the situation in Ukraine and how much money Svitolina had raised for relief efforts. Svitolina said, “$1.3 million.” “That’s amazing,” King replied. She asked where she could send people who wanted to donate. Svitolina suggested directing them to either the United24 website or the website of her foundation. A Wimbledon photographer requested to take a picture of King and Svitolina. “It would be an honor,” King said.
A few weeks later, I saw Svitolina in Washington. She was there not only for a tournament — where she would end up defeating Dasha Kasatkina again — but also for some events that highlighted her role as an emissary for Ukraine. She had a speaking engagement at the offices of Palantir Technologies, a data-analytics company whose software was being used by the Ukrainian military and that had recently endorsed Svitolina as a way of underscoring its support for her embattled country. (Disclosure: I am writing a book about Palantir and its chief executive, Alex Karp.) She was also doing a Q. and A. at the Atlantic Council, a foreign-policy think tank, with Margaret Brennan, the moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS.
The Russians had just ramped up their attacks on Odesa, and I asked Svitolina about her grandmother. She said she was OK but was still refusing to leave because of her cat. “I wish I could help her more,” Svitolina said, “but for now, the only thing she requests are pictures and videos of Skaï. She lives for these pictures.” We talked about how well she did at Wimbledon. One of the most gratifying things, she told me, was that her foundation arranged for all of her matches to be streamed free in Ukraine; one of them was also shown on a big outdoor screen in Kyiv. “I was super happy that kids in Ukraine could watch and get inspired,” she said.
Svitolina was joined in Washington by the director of her foundation, Anna Popovchenko. The foundation was sponsoring several junior tennis tournaments in Ukraine later in the summer. One, in Kyiv, would be at a club that had been occupied by the Russians earlier in the war. The tournaments could be held only at facilities that had bomb shelters or easy access to them. In the past, such events would have been a way of identifying possible future champions. Now the goal was more modest: just to offer kids some recreation and normalcy. “It is good for them to compete, to release the bad energy,” Svitolina said. Her foundation was also providing mental-health counseling for children, giving them access to therapists who could help them process the turmoil and anxiety they were experiencing. “I cannot even imagine how hard it is for the kids,” Svitolina said.
After the war began, the foundation helped some of Ukraine’s most promising young players relocate overseas so they could continue training. There was no guarantee that they would ever return. Coaches were off at war, or had gone abroad, and the conflict had destroyed much of the infrastructure that allowed tennis to flourish in Ukraine. Svitolina acknowledged that with her country fighting for its existence, there were bigger things to worry about. Still, Ukraine was known for its success in tennis, and this aspect of its national identity was also in danger of being wiped out. She seemed to recognize as much. “Our sport,” Svitolina said, “has been thrown back by 10 years at least.”
Michael Steinberger is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last feature was about the Fed’s war on inflation. Philip Montgomery is a photographer whose work examines the fractured state of America. His latest monograph, “American Mirror,” is a chronicle of the country’s recent struggles.
AdvertisementThe fall of When the draws Sergiy Stakhovsky In July 2022, At Wimbledon, Michael SteinbergerPhilip Montgomery