TOKYO — Retired Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky has traded his racket for a gun, joining his home country’s reserve forces. The 36-year-old former tennis star, who once ranked 31st in the world, spoke with the Mainichi Shimbun on March 9 and stressed that Russia’s invasion must be stopped.
The online interview took place while Stakhovsky was on a break during his patrol shift. Touching on the deaths of many civilians, he commented, “I’d like to tell the people that Russia needs to be stopped.”
The former tennis player learned of the Russian invasion while he was in Dubai on vacation with his family. He had his wife, and his three children aged 7, 6, and 3, evacuate to Hungary, and headed to his hometown of Kyiv. Stakhovsky said that with the way things are, he and his fellow citizens will “have no country to come back to.” He added, “what Russia is trying to do is basically erase Ukraine from the history books.” Stakhovsky, who could not remain a bystander, decided to return home despite opposition from his wife.
“I have my brother and my father staying here, so I didn’t want to leave them,” he said. “It’s the land where I was born.” After returning to Ukraine, he joined the reserve troops which are summoned in an emergency. He said his father and other relatives are also serving as combat medics back home.
Stakhovsky does not have any prior experience in the military. Though he could not have imagined that he would need the skills he uses during patrols, he said that he is learning day by day. In Ukraine’s capital, where blaring sirens alert residents of air strikes, he stands guard inside and outside a building while carrying a gun. His patrol shift lasts for two hours each time, followed by a six-hour break. He said that during these six hours, he delivers food supplies, helps people get out of the city, and dedicates as much time as possible to other such activities.
Stakhovsky became a professional tennis player in 2003, and has won four career titles each in singles and doubles. In the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, he defeated Roger Federer, 40, who was formerly ranked No. 1 in the world. Stakhovsky retired with his last match being the preliminary round of the Australian Open in January this year.
The Ukrainian has competed with players of various nationalities on the court. He said that he also talked with Russian tennis players following the invasion. While he avoided naming them out of concern it would affect them, he said they were “upset, sad, and shocked,” and that he does not want to see the individuals burdened with “collective guilt” mood from their country’s actions.
Novak Djokovic, the 34-year-old tennis star ranked No. 2 in the world, who experienced the Kosovo conflict as a child, directly contacted Stakhovsky to offer support.
“I felt really grateful for him reaching out because I know that he went through something like this when he was young,” said Stakhovsky, who was surprised to hear from the Serbian tennis player.
About a week ago, Stakhovsky changed his Instagram profile picture to a photo of him holding his head in his hands. He described witnessing Russian forces bombing the city and killing many civilians on the day he returned home, and said the picture expressed his despair over the injustice.
Although he has been contacting his wife every day, he said he has said nothing about the conflict to his three children. “I would love them to believe that the world is a good place to live in,” he said.
While he is concerned that Russia will return “behind the Iron Curtain” again due to dictatorship, he maintained, “Ukraine is a peaceful nation. We don’t want to attack anyone. … We don’t want to conquer anyone. We just want to be left in peace. To have our own lives and our own direction where we can develop as a nation and become better. So we need all the support we can get.”
(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department)