Tennis has a new hero. Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, who was famous for taking down Roger Federer on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in 2013, now hopes to take down a vastly different foe.
Stakhovsy, who’d moved to Hungary, felt he had to choose between his family and his homeland, which is fighting for survival. Ultimately, he knew he’d feel guilty if he didn’t return and join the Ukrainian military. “My grandparents are buried here,” he told CNN from Ukraine.
“I would like to have this history to tell to my kids. If all of us stayed back home, then Ukraine would fail – it would not even exist in the history books. According to Putin, Ukraine was created by Lenin as part of the USSR. These lies would eventually make it into history books.
The entire history of Ukraine would then be non-existent…This is a war which decides whether Ukraine exists or not. I want to do everything I can.” He spoke of his return to Ukraine with media from India as well as the BBC, Sky News, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and others.
The brave and thoughtful 36-year-old, who reached No. 31 in the world and retired after the 2022 Australian Open, recalled his wrenching departure: “My children were watching cartoons as I was leaving Hungary. I didn’t want to distract them. My 3-year-old noticed me with my backpack…I told him I’ll be right back, otherwise he would start crying. My wife was mad. She felt it was a betrayal. We talk now, which is an improvement, and I hope she’ll forgive me…It was a no-win scenario…I couldn’t forgive myself if I stayed. Now I can’t forgive myself now that I’m here. I had to make a difficult choice between my family and my country.”
He told the BBC, “Crossing the Ukrainian border was tough – the point of no return. But looking at all the spirit, the enthusiasm and will of the people not to surrender uplifted my spirits. At every corner, at every village as we walked from the Czech border and drove to Kyiv, people were barricading and patrolling with their hunting guns. Spirits were very high…Everyone was willing to risk their lives…I don’t see myself as any different from any other Ukrainian. We have a lot of people who died and they will never see their fathers and brothers.”
Once in Kyiv, Sergiy reunited with his father, a professor of urology, and his brother, who had become medics. Tears flowed. There were air strikes every six or seven minutes. It was impossible to sleep. So his uncle fled Ukraine.
“I’d never imagined my life would come to this. Being here in Kyiv, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an assault rifle is incredible,” he told MSNBC. There were no uniforms and scant training. He helped kids and women get out and supplied food and water. “We man checkpoints, handling deliveries. We are the last line of defense,” explained Sergiy. As for the use of weaponry, there was a brief class on how to use a rocket launcher – the key was not to shoot your own.
Stakhovsky contended, “It’s insane in today’s world that we have an open war inside Europe…It’s a human catastrophe because the Russians don’t allow food…They kill civilians with assault rifles. It’s barbaric….Cold blood is on the streets because they want to [impose] fear and have people run. It’s a disgrace…No one expected this – laying down our arms is not an option.”
As for the overriding issue of nuclear weapons, Stakhovsy asked, “Are we just going to lay down our arms and surrender Europe because they have nukes? We all understand that once the nukes start flying it is the end of the world…[but] the world should do something.”
Sergiy says that the morale of the Russian army is low because they know what they are doing. He added, “We thank all the people of Russia who protested and demanded this be stopped – also people all over the world, in Tokyo, Paris and London. The support has been extremely encouraging, but we still have to press to make Putin, his establishment and generals understand the consequences.”
Stakhovsky wants the West to close Ukraine’s airspace so Ukrainian troops aren’t attacked from the air. “We want to be a normal civilized country, a democracy where you can actually elect your president. Our president is the only president we ever had who stood up for our country. All of them before were just political jokes. Zelensky may have been a comedian, but he’s for the people. He stands for his goals and morals. He risks his life, leads by example and is willing to go the distance.”
Stakhosky also contended that there are definitely politics in sports. “Political figures are trying to get support from sports figures…It was absolutely outrageous that we had Olympic medalists standing on a stage [at a Moscow concert] wearing the insignias of the Russian military and promoting the war. It’s bizarre…Unfortunately we saw this in Hitler’s Germany. And if we’re going that way, the world should brace itself, because Ukraine is just the beginning.”
Sergiy was pleased that hundreds of tennis pros reached out to him and he posted a moving message from Novak Djokovic: “Stako, how are you man? Are you on the field? Thinking of you…hoping all calms down soon. Please let me know what would be the best address to send help.” As for Russian players, Sergiy said, “I’ve heard from them. They’re very sorry for this. They never wanted any part of this.”
But you have “to put a collective guilt on the nation for their actions and leaders. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it was when Hitler was destroying Europe…The Germans were collectively guilty and we are not that far from 1938 or 1939. It’s tough on players. None of the young ones live inside Russia and they didn’t vote…
“Maybe it’s unfair [to ban Russian players from the tour], but there’s no other method of stopping Russia…They need to be accountable…and the only way to make it happen is to make Russians feel guilty and make them rethink who’s governing them…Maybe they should vote better if they want the benefits of normal life and to study and travel abroad. You will have to put a collective guilt on the nation for the actions of their leader. When Hitler was destroying Europe all the Germans were collectively guilty.
“I’d rather be home with my kids and wife, who I adore, but how would you be able to go home if you saw atrocities like this? If I’d go home and all my countrymen would go home, then we would lose, and Ukraine would not exist…But once this is all done I’m going home to my kids and I’m not going to leave them again.”
Also reporting Vinay Venkatesh