Ukraine | Players fight for homeland as Federer pledges $500,000 in aid

As Roger Federer pledges $500,000 (£379,223) to help children affected by the war in Ukraine, at least 3 tennis players are now in combat there –  former world No 31 Sergiy Stakhovksky, 1999 French Open runner-up Andrei Medvedev and Alexander Dolgopolov, a former World No 13, who last played a professional match in 2018.

My family and I are horrified seeing pictures from Ukraine and heartbroken for the innocent people who have been so terribly affected. We stand for peace. We will provide assistance to children from Ukraine who need care, about six million Ukrainian children are currently out of school and we know it's a very critical time to provide access to education and would like to support them to deal with this extremely traumatic experience. Roger Federer

Before taking arms to defend his country from the invasion, Dolgopolov called for Russians to be banned from tennis and criticised the sport’s 7 governing bodies, the ITF, 4 Grand Slams, the ATP and the WTA, as being ‘too passive’ in allowing players from Russia and Belarus to continue competing as neutral athletes.

“I think every Russian is responsible for their government and their president,” Dolgopolov said. “Just being neutral, taking away their flag, we know that is not changing anything.

“And even the sanctions that are happening now, even the destroyed economics it is not enough for [Putin] to stop.”

After helping his mother and sister evacuate to Turkey, the 33-year old received weapons training from a former professional soldier before returning to his native city, Kyiv, to sign up with Ukraine’s territorial defence unit.

“My girlfriend was trying to leave with her child, that was maybe ten days ago,” Dolgopolov said. “Their car got shot with some Kalashnikovs or something. They are OK but three cars in front of them were destroyed.

“They [the Russian forces] are killing civilians, whole families. She told me that one of her friends’ family got killed with children, with women, so we just feel anger.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, more than 3 million people, many of them children, have fled the country according to the United Nations.


Alexander Dolgopolov has joined up and is calling for a ban of Russian and Belarusian tennis players from the pro tours

Twitter

Pressure is building on tennis chiefs to go further than neutrality and, last week, Nigel Huddleston, the UK’s Minister of State for Sport, said the government could potentially stop Russians, including the World No 1 Daniil Medvedev, from competing at Wimbledon unless assurances are provided that they are not supporters of president Vladimir Putin.

“Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled,” Huddleston said. “We need some potential assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin.

“We are considering what requirements we may need to try and get assurances along those lines.

“Would I be comfortable with a Russian athlete flying the Russian flag? No. We are in discussions with the All England Club about this.

“Many countries around the world have agreed that we will not allow representatives from Russia to compete and there are visa implications here as well.”

Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev would be the highest-ranked absentees under the suggested move on the men’s side, while 2021 Roland Garros finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is currently the highest ranked Russian woman.

WTA chief Steve Simon, however, has said that individual athletes should not be penalised for ‘decisions of an authoritarian leadership’ amid concerns that players from Russia and Belarus could be blocked from competing on the pro tours.

“You never know what the future may bring,” Simon told the BBC. “But I can tell you that we have never banned athletes from participating on our tour as the result of political positions their leadership may take.

“So it would take something very significant for that to change, but again we don’t know where this is going.”

Many call for caution, such as Australian and 10-times Wimbledon champion in doubles and mixed, Todd Woodbridge, who told Australia’s Channel Nine: “That is such slippery and dangerous ground.

“We all know they have families back in whatever part of Russia they are from, and you do not want to be on the wrong side of that, because your family will pay a price.

“This is really dangerous territory, and one that we have to be very sensitive about.

“It’s an individual sport, I feel at this point we allow them to play [while] teams are different, that is national representation.”

Dolgopolov remains adamant, though: “Letting them play just by saying a few words that they are against war, I don’t believe this is enough. I know all those guys personally.

“I even played Daniil when I was playing. They are nice guys but, no offence to them, I believe Russia should be blocked from any participant in any sport, in any culture.”


Roger Federer has pledged $500,000 from his Foundation to aid children in Ukraine

© Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Federer, a former World No 1, announced on social media that his foundation is donating $500,000 to help Ukraine.

My family and I are horrified seeing pictures from Ukraine and heartbroken for the innocent people who have been so terribly affected,” the 40-year-old Swiss posted on Twitter. “We stand for peace.

We will provide assistance to children from Ukraine who need care, about 6 million Ukrainian children are currently out of school and we know it’s a very critical time to provide access to education and would like to support them to deal with this extremely traumatic experience.

Through the Roger Federer Foundation we will be supporting War Child Holland with a donation
of $500’000 to establish access to continued schooling for Ukrainian children.”

Federer is the latest person from the world of sport to pledge money to help those affected by the conflict and Unicef, the UN’s children’s charity, says such acts are helping to make a difference with aid efforts for those affected.

“The generosity and kindness that has been shown across the sporting world from teams to individuals has been incredible, as we see how the power of sport continues to unite people from all over the world,” Daniel Walden, Unicef’s UK senior emergencies specialist, told BBC Sport.


Andrei Medvedev and Sergiy Stakhovksky have both signed up to defend Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion

Twitter

Now Dolgopolov has joined the Ukrainian defence effort, posting: ”I already started practicing shooting, and I was very lucky, that an ex-professional soldier teached me for 5-7 days.

“They were really happy to help, once they heard my goal, big thanks to our friends from Turkey,” Dolgopolov wrote in a message posted on his Instagram.

“I’m not Rambo in a week, but quite comfortable with the weapons, and can hit the head three out of five times, from 25 meters in a calm, practice environment.

“While practicing, I was organising the way back, so once I found a few guys planning to go to Ukraine from the United States, and once ready, we started our travel.

“Took some bulletproof vests for us and our army, flew to Zagreb, bought all the stuff we needed, plus some thermal monoculars and different things, and I drove through Europe, and entered Ukraine from Poland, and at last, I’m in Kyiv,” Dolgopolov continued.

“This is my home, and I will defend it! With all the people that stayed!

“Big thanks and respect to all our famous people on the grounds. Lots of respect and I’m proud, how united the country is, under such pressure of a crazy dictator.

“Truth is behind us and this is our land! I will stay in Kyiv until our victory and after.”

That Russian and Belarusian players are unaffected by the war is a wrong assumption, many posting ant-war sentiments although stopping short of openly criticising Putin, recognising, no doubt, the dangers of doing so.

Former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka, though, shut down her social media presence after her exit from the Indian Wells Masters last week, struggling to hold back tears throughout her 3rd round match against Kazakhstan’s Elina Rybakina.

Competing under no flag, Azarenka had posted on Twitter ahead of Indian Well: “I am devastated by the actions that have taken place over the last several days – against – and in Ukraine.

“It’s heartbreaking to see how many innocent people have been affected and continue to be affected by such violence.

“Since my early childhood, I have always seen and experienced Ukrainian and Belarusian people, as well as both nations, friendly and supportive of one another.

“It is hard to witness the violent separation that is currently taking place instead of supporting and finding compassion for each other.

“My heart is with everyone directly and indirectly impacted by this war that is causing such pain and suffering for so many. I hope and wish for peace and an end to the war.”


Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk was very outspoken at Indian Wells, calling for the full ban of Russian and Belarusian's on the WTA Tour

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

After winning her first round match at Indian Wells, Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk accused Russian players for not making a bigger stand over the atrocities taking place in her country.

“You cannot be neutral in this,” Kostyuk said. “These ‘no war’ statements — they hurt me because they have no substance.

“Seeing [Russian] players on-site really hurts me. And seeing them having the only problem not being able to transfer the money and stuff — that’s what they are talking about — this is unacceptable for me.

“What is very disappointing is that no Russian player came to see me. None have told me they’re sorry for what their country is doing to mine.

“One player messaged me, another chatted with me, but I didn’t hear any apologies, I didn’t hear anyone telling me they didn’t support what was going on. To me, that’s shocking.

“You don’t have to be involved in politics to behave like a human being. Everyone knows what’s going on. It hurts me. It hurts me every time I arrive at the stadium and see all these Russian players.”

Russian-born Australian Daria Saville wore the colours of the Ukrainian flag during her impressive run to the 4th round at Indian Wells.

Speaking in February about what is happening in Ukraine, Saville denounced the Russian invasion and condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s very terrible what’s happening over there,” she said. “It’s close to my heart as well.”

The strain on players, especially Ukrainians, is obvious, with France’s Gael Monfils admitting the last couple of weeks have not been easy for his family, adding that he has doing his best to support his wife, Elina Svitolina.

The Ukrainian has spoken out against the war many times, admitting she is heartbroken and devastated over what’s happening in her homeland.

“It’s not easy to see my wife, a couple weeks ago, crying every night,” Monfils said. “It was tough. Of course, I was, and I’m being there for her every day, for her, for the family. Quite a lot of family still there.

“It’s tough to describe because I’m in it. I’m in it, but we try to manage it the best way that we can.

“And definitely for myself, you know, I try to be the shoulder, to be everything that she can lean on, and definitely to my second family, you know, I do anything for them to make them happy, safe, and everything that I can do.”

Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka are the top seeds at the Miami Open Presented by Itaú this week, from Russia and Belarus respectively but appearing with no country or flag against their names.

And the 26-year-old Medvedev, the runner-up at the last two Australian Opens, will regain the World No 1 spot with a semi-final run in Miami.


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