In the past week or so, the world has changed. The Russian invasion (or reinvasion, or expanded invasion) of Ukraine threatens the very existence of the country, such that Ukrainian sportspeople, including tennis players, are now literally putting down their boxing gloves, goalkeeping gloves and tennis rackets to take up arms to defend their homeland. At such a time, tennis and indeed sport in general does not matter.
Yet the fact remains that Ukraine is a country that has contributed greatly to sport and to tennis in particular, especially since its independence from the old Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As the country itself faces an utterly uncertain future, here is a brief history of Ukrainian tennis.
Like so much of eastern Europe, with the notable exception of the old Czechoslovakia, Ukraine came to tennis relatively late. Under the Soviet domination of the country, football/soccer was King (or at least Supreme Leader) and other sports, particularly a sport as individualistic and expensive to participate in as tennis, did not get much of a look-in. However, that all changed with the reintroduction of tennis to the Olympics in 1988, after it had been absent from the Games since 1924.
The former Soviet Bloc always placed a great emphasis on Olympic competition, as it afforded it a rare chance to compete with and even defeat its Western capitalist enemies, and once tennis became an Olympic sport again there was a sudden drive and desire in the old Communist world to produce players to take part in it. Incredibly, that drive and desire continued even after the collapse of the old Communist world in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the extent that today, particularly in women’s tennis, former Soviet countries have become a powerhouse, with more surnames ending in “ova” among top female tennis players, for example, than any other combination of letters from anywhere around the world.
Although Ukraine and other former Soviet countries effectively mass-produced fine female tennis players, arguably the greatest ever Ukrainian tennis player was male – Andriy Medvedev. Medvedev is a relatively common name in the old Soviet Bloc and Andriy is no relation to the current World No.1, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, but he was still an outstanding player in his own right, reaching as high as No.4 in the world in 1994. However, the highlight of his career came five years later in Paris, although it did not end happily for him.
In 1999, Andriy Medvedev reached the French Open Final, where he faced Andre Agassi, the great American whose forebears, as his name suggests, hailed from eastern Europe, namely Armenia. Agassi was going for the Career Grand Slam of winning each of the four Majors at least once, something that his great rival and compatriot Pete Sampras had never been able to do and ultimately was never able to do, despite winning ending his career with nearly twice as many Majors as Agassi (14 to 8). However, Agassi’s Career Grand Slam dream very nearly ended that day in the French capital.
Medvedev played brilliantly to take the first two sets relatively easily, 6-1 and 6-2, and it seemed that Agassi, like Sampras, would never triumph at Roland Garros. However, in one of the greatest ever comebacks in a Major Final, one that proved, as Agassi said afterwards, that tennis was the one sport where you could not just play out time, the brilliant American regrouped magnificently to win in five sets, 1–6 2–6 6–4 6–3 6–4. Medvedev was never the same player again and ended up retiring only two years later, aged just 27.
If Andriy Medvedev is almost certainly the greatest male Ukrainian tennis player, outstripping the achievements of solid but unspectacular players such as Alexandr Dolgopolov and Sergei Bubka (the tennis-playing namesake of the great Ukrainian pole-vaulter), the greatest female Ukrainian tennis player is undoubtedly Elina Svitolina, the current world #15, who reached as as high as world No.3 in 2017.
Svitolina is currently playing in Mexico, at the WTA Abierto GNP Seguros Women’s Singles in Monterrey. She is the No.1 seed in the tournament, which was actually the scene of one of her greatest career triumphs, at least for the quality of the tennis she played in the final, because she won the same tournament two years ago. In what was arguably the best women’s match and certainly the best women’s final that year, Svitolina beat Marie Bouzková, the then-rising young Czech star (her career has somewhat stalled since), 5-7 6-4 6-4. Unfortunately for Svitolina, the match was almost instantly forgotten, because it was the last significant tennis final, either men’s or women’s, before the Covid pandemic brought the world and world tennis to a shuddering halt.
Two years on, it is not plague (or its modern equivalent) but war that is dominating the thoughts of the world and Svitolina. After convincingly winning her first match this week against Anastasia Potapova, the young Russian playing (like all Russian players now) as a neutral, Svitolina, who had worn her country’s national colours of blue and yellow on court, announced that she would be donating all her prize money from Monterrey to the “Ukrainian Army”.
Of course, her compatriot, Sergiy Stakhovsky, has gone even further – in fact, much further – by actually returning to Ukraine to fight alongside his countrymen, joining other male Ukrainian sports stars, including past and current World Heavyweight Boxing Champions the Klitschko brothers and Oleksandr Usyk, in pledging to lay down their lives, if necessary, to defend their motherland. In a world that has seemingly gone insane over the last week, most dramatically when Vladimir Putin put Russian nuclear forces on “special alert”, the presence of so many successful and wealthy Ukrainian sportsmen on the country’s front lines is further evidence of how the old order of things has been transformed almost overnight.
The Utterly Uncertain Future
Ukraine as a country faces a genuinely existential threat, as its people fight to retain the independence and democracy they have known since the collapse of the USSR more than thirty years ago, rather than risk being subsumed back into the Russian Empire, as Ukraine has been so many times throughout its history. In such a truly nightmarish scenario, thoughts about what might happen to the country’s sportspeople, including its tennis players, are ultimately irrelevant.
And yet it is many Ukrainian sportspeople who are at the forefront of the country’s fight for freedom, and not just on the actual front lines in their country but in the court of popular opinion throughout the world, which has immediately and almost universally sided with Ukraine against the might of Russia. Football being the world’s most popular sport, it is Ukrainian footballers, such as Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Everton’s Vitaliy Mykolenko, who have dominated most sporting coverage of the Ukraine story, especially when they publicly embraced on the pitch at Goodison Park before their clubs faced each other in the Premier League last weekend.
Equally, though, Ukraine’s female tennis players have been trying to do whatever they can to generate publicity and sympathy for their country’s life or death struggle. In Mexico, Svitolina appeared to be almost a different player as she virtually swatted Potapova aside, showing all the steeliness of a battleship as she spoke about being “on a mission” to try and win matches for her country and in the process earn some hard currency to support it economically and even militarily. And there have been similar expressions of intent by other Ukrainian tennis players, such as Dayana Yastremska, who is currently competing with her sister Ivanna in Lyon, having literally fled her homeland only days earlier after having to leave her her elderly parents behind.
In the future, it is possible that Svitolina will one day win a Major for her country, becoming the first Ukrainian man or woman to do so, or that Svitolina and Yastremska will combine with other young Ukrainian women players, such as 19-year-old Marta Kostyuk, to win the Billie Jean King Cup (the old Fed Cup, the premier women’s team tennis event) together. For now, though, such dreams of sporting glory are for the far future. Svitolina, Yastremska, Kostyuk and Stakhovsky, like all Ukrainians everywhere, can only hope and pray – and yes, fight, either literally on the frontline or metaphorically on the tennis court or elsewhere in the world of sport – to try and protect their homeland from being destroyed and then dismembered by its more powerful and infinitely more aggressive neighbour.
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