A Ukrainian flag fluttered day and night in the soft desert breeze above Stadium 1, the main show court at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Tournament officials had decided to raise it right next to the big electronic scoreboard, directly across from the American one; you couldn’t miss it. Tennis is a global sport played by athletes who, for the most part, believe that they are world wanderers, representing only or mostly themselves, not their nations. But wars have a way of unsettling personal identities and long-held understandings. As the tournament in Indian Wells got under way, earlier this month, tennis players and the game’s administrators were still struggling to figure out their response to Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine.
There were relatively easy calls. The Association of Tennis Professionals, which oversees men’s tennis, and the Women’s Tennis Association, which runs the women’s tour, canceled tournaments in Russia, including Moscow’s Kremlin Cup, the circuit’s premier Russian event, founded in 1990, at the dawn of what came to be called the post-Cold War era, which now seems to be giving way to a new and troubling time. The International Tennis Federation banned Russia and Belarus (the latter for that nation’s “facilitation” of the invasion, the federation said) from the national-team competitions it oversees, the men’s Davis Cup and the women’s Billie Jean King Cup. Just last fall, Russian teams captured both cups. Generations ago, these competitions were central to the sport, but not anymore.
But what to do about individual Russian and Belarusian players? If their teams were banned from competing, should they be banned, too, from playing tour tournaments and majors? The dilemma has some parallels to one that the tour faced in the nineteen-eighties, when anti-apartheid protesters managed to shame the powers that be into putting pressure on South Africa. South African tennis players were barred from the Olympics in 1988, when the sport was reintroduced to the Games, and from other team competitions. But individual South African pros continued to play on tour, if uneasily—they often faced protests and were excluded from playing in some countries. Anti-apartheid groups tried, unsuccessfully, to get them barred from the 1990 Australian Open.
All Russian and Belarusian players arrived at Indian Wells technically stripped of their nationalities. The various governing bodies of tennis—the four Grand Slam events along with the ITF, the ATP, and the WTA—agreed that these players should no longer compete under the name or flag of their nations, a policy urged upon them by Ukraine’s biggest tennis star, Elina Svitolina, who announced at a tournament in Monterrey, Mexico, late last month, that she would not play her first-round match against Russia’s Anastasia Potapova unless Russian and Belarusian players be identified only as “neutral athletes.” Practically speaking, this meant little more than that representations of the flags of Russia and Belarus would no longer appear next to players’ names in tournament draws and on scoreboards. But Marta Kostyuk—a promising nineteen-year-old who played her youth tennis at a club on the west side of Kyiv, was coached by her mother, and makes her home not far from the city—did not think that this went far enough . Kostyuk played her first-round match at Indian Wells out on a small side court against Belgium’s Maryna Zanevska—who was born in Odesa, the Ukrainian port city where her parents still live, and where residents feared a Russian assault by sea. Kostyuk, dressed in a blue skirt and yellow tank top, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, won in three long, hard-fought sets, and the two players embraced tearfully. Afterward, Kostyuk said, of the Russian competitors at Indian Wells, “Seeing the players on site really hurts me. Seeing them having the only problem is not being able to transfer the money or stuff—that’s what they’re talking about—it’s like, I don’t know, this is unacceptable to me.”
Alexandr Dolgopolov agreed. He retired last year from tennis, but not before becoming one of the top-ranked players in Ukraine’s history, reaching world No. 13 in 2012 and dazzling fans with his unorthodox technique and array of tricky spins. His father, a respected international tennis coach, had played for the Soviet Union; Dolgopolov was born in Kyiv, but spent much of his childhood, and then his playing career, on the road, eventually establishing his home in tax-friendly Monte Carlo. Late last week, he said that allowing Russians to play as neutrals “is not changing anything.” By then, no Ukrainian players were left in the draw. Dolgopolov knew the Russian players on the men’s tour, he noted. “They are nice guys, but—no offense to them—I believe Russia should be blocked from any participant in any sport, in any culture,” he said, in an interview with the BBC, from Kyiv, where he had returned to join one of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense units.
Sergiy Stakhovsky, another former player from Ukraine who is best known, perhaps, for his upset win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon, in 2013, was also in Kyiv, and in uniform. He believed that Russian players should be banned from team events but did not see the point of excluding individual Russian players from the tour. He told the tennis podcaster Craig Shapiro that these players, like most of their peers from elsewhere, got to where they were not with support from the state but with the support of their families and individual effort. They “all grew up abroad” and now lived abroad. He was OK with them continuing to compete as neutrals, and he was thankful for the Russian players who’d said, however carefully, that they were against the war. He understood that Vladimir Putin and his government considered it a crime to even call the war a war.
No Russian player declared himself against the war more quickly and clearly than Andrey Rublev. Rublev, who is twenty-four, arrived at Indian Wells ranked seventh in the world and on a tear, having won tournaments in Marseille and Dubai. After winning his semifinal match in Dubai, Rublev made news far beyond the Emirates and the world of tennis by writing on the lens of a TV camera with a marker not his signature or a heart shape, now a post-match custom on tour, but “No War Please.” His matches were not important, he said soon afterward. “What’s happening is much more terrible.”
As play at Indian Wells reached its final weekend, he was the only Russian or Belarusian left in the draw. The world’s top Russian player, Daniil Medvedev, had arrived at Indian Wells ranked No. 1 in the world but had lost in the third round to Gaël Monfils, who is married to Svitolina. (She was watching from his player’s box.) The loss dropped Medvedev’s ranking to No. 2, behind Novak Djokovic, who was not playing at Indian Wells owing to his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Rublev no longer wanted to talk about the war. For Russian players, it was dangerous to criticize the government and awkward, or worse, to talk of the difficulties that they themselves face—their worries about families back home and such—for what were their worries compared with those of the Ukrainian players? In the press conferences Rublev was required to hold after matches, he seemed tense and distracted, and struggled to find the words he wanted in English. “All I can say is that, of course, it’s terrible,” he said at one point. At another, he said that he hoped for a tennis tour “outside politics.” But that is not how the world works, or how the world of tennis works. Before Rublev moved to Spain for advanced coaching, he came up through the Moscow tennis scene of sophisticated training facilities and youth-development programs, which was due, in no small part, to Boris Yeltsin, who loved the game and saw that his government provided funding for it. Now Rublev’s anxieties, like everyone else’s, were due to Putin.