Melbourne | Keeping Ukraine on our minds…

In an effort to keep Ukraine at the forefront of consciousness, tennis stars turned up to support the ‘Tennis Plays for Peace’ exhibition event held at Rod Laver Stadium last week in front of a packed crowd, raising funds to provide aid relief to those afflicted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February.

Russian tennis players are mostly silent, neutral. When the war ends, and their children [will] ask them, 'What did you do to prevent this from happening?’. A lot of organisations choose the dollars by remaining in the background, pretending that the Russians have nothing to do with Putin and not even sanctioning those who support the war. History will judge their actions later. The truth is that most Russians support Putin and his war. Alexandr Dolgopolov

There have been a myriad of fundraising events and activities for Ukraine since that fateful act of aggression that has sparked horrific conflict in the war-torn country.

A month-and-a-half before the one-year mark, the WTA and ATP hosted the ‘Tennis Plays for Peace’ initiative, bringing the tennis community and fans together to support the humanitarian relief efforts through UNICEF Australia and Global Giving, with tickets costing $25 for adults and $5 for children.

Although the amount raised has yet to be published, the event was the second such fundraiser to be held at a Grand Slam, and a similar event held at last summer’s US Open raised $1.2 million for humanitarian relief in Ukraine, part of $2 million raised by the Grand Slam as a whole.

Maria Sakkari, Rafael Nadal, Alex de Minaur, Alexander Zverev and Frances Tiafoe all hit the court for the cause, and they were joined by two very special guests, 98-year-old Leonid Stanislavskyi of Ukraine, who took on 99-year-old Henry Young of Australia in the ‘Clash of the Centurions’.

While Young is perhaps lesser known on the 90+ circuit, Stanislavskyi made the headlines when he went head-to-head against Rafael Nadal in Mallorca in November 2021.

Also present were Coco Gauff and Ukrainians Marta Kostyuk and Dayana Yastremska, alongside Andy Murray, and Grigor Dimitrov.

Over the course of the evening, the game’s current stars met, and traded groundstrokes with the two oldest players, Stanislavskyi and Young.

The event also featured musical performances by the duo Vika & Linda, and the Melbourne-based Volya: Ukrainian Combined Choir.


Players pose during the 'Tennis Plays for Peace' charity event held ahead of the Australian Open on Wednesday 11 January at Rod Laver Arena

© William West/AFP via Getty Images

Two retired pros from Ukraine, Alexandr Dolgopolov, 34, and Sergiy Stakhovsky, 37, enlisted to defend their motherland, both millionaires in prize money earnings from competing on the world stage, and who could so easily have kept on making a good living, free from want and, more importantly, free from bombings.

They have received high praise for their actions, even if their words now chill those on the sidelines: “Seeing bodies doesn’t matter to us anymore. Force of habit, let’s say,” Stakhovsky told L’Équipe. “Unfortunately, humans can adapt to anything.

“So, we adapted to the bombings. We adapted to fear. And we adapted to death,” he added from the Donbas city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, where the streets are strewn with debris and dead bodies.

Stakhovsky joined the military reserve in Kiev at the start of the conflict last year, before being deployed to a unit of mortar shooters, while Dolgopolov also volunteered at the beginning of the war and, after spending a week training at a shooting range, the 34-year-old is now a drone operator in a unit attached to Ukrainian military intelligence.

“I collect information. I give targets to our artillery,” Dolgopolov explained. “At the beginning, it was very difficult, but you try to pull yourself together and stay strong.

“If it worries you for too long, you’ll end up in an asylum.”

Stakhovsky played his last match almost exactly a year ago, on 10 January, 2022, in Melbourne, recording a loss to JJ Wolf of the USA in AO qualifying that sent him straight into retirement.

In 2013, he achieved his greatest feat, which was the biggest upset in men’s tennis history at Wimbledon when he dismantled Roger Federer in the 2nd-round.

Dolgopolov hasn’t competed since May 2018, when he was sent packing from Rome by Novak Djokovic. A wrist injury kept him out of the game, and he officially retired on 1 May, 2021.

Both have criticised the ATP and WTA for allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral banner.

“Russian tennis players are mostly silent, neutral,” said Dolgopolov. “When the war ends, and their children ask them, ‘What did you do to prevent this from happening?’.

“A lot of organisations choose the dollars by remaining in the background, pretending that the Russians have nothing to do with Putin and not even sanctioning those who support the war.

“History will judge their actions later. The truth is that most Russians support Putin and his war.”

Stakhovsky took aim at Serbian players Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, who participated in an exhibition event in Saint Petersburg last year.

“You have to believe that money can buy everything,” he said. “Take advantage of the cash […] I prefer to be an ‘Instagram clown’ who defends his country rather than a whore of Russian money.”


Together with Allegro Charity, Iga Swiatek is selling a limited edition of T-shirts to raise further funds for children in Ukraine

Instagram

Meanwhile, World No 1 Iga Swiatek has put her ‘Iga & Friends’ T-shirts up for sale to raise funds for the children in war-torn Ukraine.

The 21-year old Pole continues her unstinting support of Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of her neighbouring country, speaking out against the conflict, organising the ‘Iga Swiatek and Friends for Ukraine’ initiative to raise donations and aid those affected by the ongoing war, and wearing a ribbon with the Ukrainian colours on her cap during matches to raise awareness.

The exhibition event in Poland raised approximately £422,000 and the funds were distributed to UNICEF Polska, United 24, and the Elina Svitolina Foundation.

Now the three-time Grand Slam champion is selling her ‘Iga & Friends’ and ‘1ga’ T-shirts via Allegro Charity, after she and UNICEF Polska once again joined forces to raise funds for children in war-torn Ukraine.

“Do you remember when many of you asked in the comments where you can buy IGA & FRIENDS t-shirts? Or 1GA t-shirts?” Swiatek posted. “From now on, on Allegro Charity, where together with UNICEF Polska, we are again collecting funds to support children from Ukraine.”


Aryna Sabalenka, who won the recent Adelaide International 1 tournament, claims Russian and Belarusian players have 'zero control' over the war in Ukraine

© Sarah Reed/Getty Images

Elsewhere, Aryna Sabalenka has been very vocal over the divisive ban of Russian and Belarusian players from Wimbledon last year, questioning its effectiveness, and arguing that the move did nothing to detract from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Wimbledon was not awarded any rankings points last year due to the ban, after the ATP and WTA fined the All England Club for imposing the controversial ban.

While the move to ban players from Russia and the Putin-supporting Belarus from Wimbledon was met with approval from many quarters, it sparked a massive controversy between the ATP and WTA, and the Club hosting the grass court Grand Slam.

As a result of the ban, Wimbledon was stripped of ranking points in 2022, leaving players aggrieved and without the chance to defend crucial ranking points.

Sabalenka, the World No 5, who hails from Belarus, is set to compete in the 2022 Australian Open under a neutral flag, and the 24-year-old says it was unfair to punish players for a situation they could not have any control over.

“This is really terrible because no one supports war – no one,” she said. “The problem is that we have to speak loud about that … but why should we scream about that in every corner? It’s not going to help at all. We have zero control under this situation.

“I’m just really disappointed sport is somehow in politics. We’re just athletes playing their sport. That’s it. We’re not about politics.

“If all of us could do something, we would do it, but we have zero control.

“They banned us from Wimbledon, and what did it change? Nothing – they’re still doing this, and this is the sad [part] of this situation.”

Fans responded to the UK government after Wimbledon were told not to reverse their ban on Russian and Belarusian players competing this year.

In a poll run by Express Sport, readers were asked whether they agreed with the UK government stance, that allowing Russians to play at Wimbledon would legitimise the country’s attack on Ukraine, and people were almost split down the middle as 47% of respondents said they do agree, while 53% said they do not.


Novak Djokovic, who has been practising with Daniil Medvedev at Melbourne Park, wants Wimbledon to accept Russian and Belarusian players this year

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Last year’s men’s Wimbledon title was won by Djokovic, from Serbia, while the women’s title went to Elena Rybakina, despite the fact she was born in Moscow, and used to compete as a Russian player but has played for Kazakstan for the past 4 years or so.

Wimbledon is now considering lifting its ban on Russian and Belarusian players after organisers were threatened with being expelled from the ATP Tour.

In December, the LTA was fined £820,000 due to last year’s ban of players from the UK grass court tournaments across the country.

After the fines were handed down, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “Over the past year, the vast majority of the international sporting community have stood shoulder to shoulder in condemning [Vladimir] Putin’s unprovoked and barbaric actions in Ukraine.

“The UK has taken a world-leading role to build this international response.

“We are clear that sport cannot be used to legitimise this deadly invasion, and that athletes representing the Russian or Belarusian states should be banned from competing in other countries.

“Despite widespread condemnation, the international tennis tours are determined to be outcasts in this, with investment in the growth of our domestic game hampered as a result.

“This is the wrong move by the ATP and WTA. I urge them to think carefully about the message this sends, and to reconsider.”

Djokovic has called for former World No 1 Daniil Medvedev, as well as other players from Russia and Belarus, to be allowed back at Wimbledon this year.

“Of course, absolutely,” the Serbian, currently ranked No 5 in the world, insists. “I hope he and other Russian and Belarusian players will be able to play everywhere.”

Russian and Belarusian players are not permitted to play in team events, so Medvedev was not allowed to participate in the mixed United Cup that kicked off this year’s season in Australia.

“So far I haven’t heard anything [about Wimbledon], and I completely understand why we are not playing Davis Cup or United Cup and team competitions where we would represent our country,” Medvedev said in Adelaide recently. “Hopefully I can play the individual events and, as I said many, many times last year, I play what I can play, so here I can play Adelaide, and I’m really happy about it, and I want to show my best tennis.”

Last year, Djokovic was critical of Wimbledon’s decision to impose a ban on players from Russia and Belarus, while IOC President Thomas Bach stated that ‘Governments should not decide on political grounds who is participating at which sporting events’.

There has been no announcement about Wimbledon and the LTA’s policy for 2023 as yet, with a decision expected by April.


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