He hit one of the biggest blows in tennis history in 2013, knocking out champion Roger Federer from Wimbledon. Today, Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky is a volunteer fighter on a military patrol in Kiev, vowing to defend himself “against the Russian forces” to the end. The 36-year-old, who looks like a 116th-ranked player in the world, was lying on his white tennis shoes on the grass in London nine years ago after overturning Federer in the second round. But now his attire could be no different than Maidan Square, a symbol of Ukraine’s “struggle for democracy,” with a Kalashnikov, a pistol on his belt, and a 1.93-meter (6-foot-in-4) khaki-framed coat.
“I can’t say I feel comfortable with a rifle. I don’t know how I will react when I shoot someone,” he told AFP. “I wish I could never be worried about these things.”
It has been just over two weeks since he returned to Ukraine and enlisted in the territorial brigade, with volunteers tasked with helping the Russian anti-invasion army, which launched on February 24th.
“I knew I had to go there,” he says.
On the eve of the invasion, Stakhovsky was on holiday in Dubai with his wife and three children aged four, six and eight, after the Australian Open, where he hung up his racket as a professional player in January.
The next day, after watching TV images of Russian bombs falling on his homeland, he says he was immersed in a mixture of “despair” and “misery.”
A large part of his family still lived in Ukraine. He spent the next three days in the hotel, looking for shelter for people trying to get information about his condition on the ground.
“I was full of adrenaline, I slept for three or four hours (generally), I didn’t eat.”
He then told his wife that he had decided to return.
“My wife was very upset, I mean, she knew, she understood but she was really angry,” he said. But “now he understands that I couldn’t do it any other way.”
The painful decision hurts every time he thinks of his family.
“Leaving children is not something I’m proud of,” he says.
“My kids don’t know I’m here, well, they know I’m not home, but they don’t know what war is and I’m trying not to get them involved. I said, ‘Come back soon, it’s been 15 days … they will be ”.
Like all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60, Stakhovsky has the right to call the army and cannot leave the country when the country is at war.
He says he finds the strength to go thanks to his countrymen, who have seen him score in the thousands.
“If we don’t get up, we don’t have a country to live in,” he said.
Federer hopes for peace
The former tennis professional conducts two patrols a day, two hours each, to protect central Kiev from possible infiltration, especially around the palace of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the hero of the resistance against Moscow.
“Listen, I’m on foot patrolling here,” he said, “about Zelensky. He was incredibly brave and knows what he’s doing, and we all think he knows what he’s doing.”
People from “India to South America” have sent thousands of messages of support and asked how they can help Ukraine, says Stakhovsky.
Among them are hundreds of professional tennis players who have not forgotten their former colleague, who rose to 31st in the world in 2010 and was the unofficial spokesman for the junior players.
Tennis legend has also offered help, including the man who stunned Wimbledon, including Roger Federer himself.
“He said he wants peace soon,” the Ukrainian said, adding that Federer and his wife were trying to help Ukrainian children through their foundation.
A particularly touching message came from Novak Djokovic, the second largest number in the world.
“He experienced that when he was young, so he knows exactly what our children are going through. So I would say that message from him is heavier in terms of meaning.”
As the Russians approach Kiev, there is a fear that the same fate may befall the devastated cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol.
“That’s worrying,” he said, “because they don’t care if they kill a child or a soldier, they don’t care.”
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