(Paris) From the courts to the battlefield, the war revolutionized the life of Alexandr Dolgopolov, tennis player turned soldier: if he still believes in Ukraine’s victory, the former professional player believes that it requires a increased aid from the West.
“We don’t have enough (material) to repel them, we saw that during the counter-offensive,” he said in an interview given by telephone to AFP from Kyiv, where he is awaiting his next assignment after several months spent on the front facing Russian forces.
Aged 35, former quarter-finalist at the Australian Open, who defeated Rafael Nadal in 2014 at Indian Wells, he rose to thirteenth in the world and has accumulated more than $7 million in winnings during his career . A CV that did not make him a natural candidate for the army.
But shortly after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, he chose to join the Ukrainian army, a decision taken in Turkey where he had gone to shelter his mother and sister.
Unlike another former professional player also involved, Sergiy Stakhovsky, Dolgopolov had zero military experience: he had only touched a weapon once before the war. Military training was brief.
But his experience as a high-level athlete has served him well, he assures: mental strength, physical resistance, discipline and organization… “High-level sport is hard,” says the player who announced his retirement from sport in 2021, due to an injury, three years after his final match, a defeat against a certain Novak Djokovic in Rome (6-1, 6-3)…
Son of the former coach of the Soviet tennis team, he explains that he now has very little contact with his former fellow players.
This decision to get involved was obvious to him: “It’s my country, I think we have to do something.” He evokes “the courage of his people” and the pride of “fighting on the right side to defend what is yours”, against “the barbarity of the enemy”.
Faced with a protracted war, he urges Western countries to increase their support. The Russians “voted a Defense budget of $100 billion per year for the next three years,” “from armored vehicles to planes to soldiers, they have the advantage everywhere,” he says.
“To destroy them, we need three times more, because they say that if we attack we need three times more soldiers,” estimates the former player who discovered the front in the Kherson region.
“The first time I went there, the unit was under mortar bombardment. A large part had been fighting since 2014 and the invasion of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, he says.
“When I saw them more nervous than me, I said ‘ok’. I didn’t understand what was happening… I was pretty calm, which is actually a bit worrying and not very good, because when you don’t feel fear you can make the wrong decisions. »
Returning unscathed from this first deployment, he saw a Georgian volunteer die. “It’s been tough for us. He was a pretty young guy, a talented engineer and very nice,” recalls Dolgopolov. “He took out a loan from the bank because he didn’t have enough money to come to Ukraine. »
Dolgopolov still believes in victory, but is worried about a possible return of Donald Trump to the White House, about a Europe that is too “demilitarized” and, in his eyes, too lenient with Russia. “It’s as if the West was asleep” in the face of Russia, according to him.
In this regard, the former player takes a dim view of the participation of Russian athletes in the next Olympic Games in Paris. “I’m sad that once again Russia got away with it. they overcame the (economic) sanctions and now they are accepted in the sport,” he sighs.
In early December, Ukrainian Sports Minister Marviy Bidnyi told AFP that some 400 Ukrainian athletes and coaches had been killed since February 2022, some of whom could have gone to the Olympics, such as shooter Egor Kigitov or boxer Maksym Galynichev.