INDIAN WELL, CALIF.—On Saturday morning, the flags above Stadium 4 snapped in the breeze. It was easy to recognize those of the United States and Great Britain and Japan, and most of the spectators could have picked out Serbia's and Spain's, both of which tennis fans have seen a lot of in recent years. But on this court and others here, there were dozens of flags that many Americans, including this one, could never identify. Still, it’s the thought that counts: Unlike the U.S. Open, which is draped in the Stars and Stripes from end to end, Indian Wells does its best to honor tennis’s worldwide reach and put on an internationalist face.
One flag that I couldn’t find today was Ukraine’s. As I’ve learned from following the news out of Kiev this year, it’s a starkly beautiful blue and yellow duo-chrome, split horizontally down the center (not unlike some early-1970s paintings by modern American master Brice Marden). But for Elina Svitolina, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Sergiy Stakhovsky, the three natives of the Ukraine who played here on Saturday, the fact that their flag wasn’t flying above their courts probably didn’t bother them. They had their own jobs to get done, and those jobs had nothing to do with global politics or the deeply troubled state of their nation.
Or did they? The warm air and crystalline sky on this Southern California afternoon—“picture postcard,” was how I kept hearing the day described—made the winter’s grim events in Kiev feel many worlds away. In fact, the desert landscape made it feel like we could have been on a different planet entirely, one where a double fault at break point was the worst thing that could happen. It was easy to understand how, during past European wars, refugees and intellectuals had settled here, on the farthest side of the West. Yet it still felt like Svitolina, Dolgopolov, and Stakhovsky were making a political statement with their tennis in Indian Wells, a statement about the power of the individual, at a moment when it’s on the verge of being overrun in their country.
Svitolina was up first, against Ana Ivanovic on Stadium 4. This court has the best atmosphere on the grounds; the bleachers are intimate, but they offer an expansive view of the surroundings. Unfortunately for Svitolina, the atmosphere was all on Ivanovic’s side. The 2008 Indian Wells champ loves these courts, and the fans here love her back. Few were rooting for Svitolina, and I’m guessing fewer knew that she was Ukrainian. Yet as the first set progressed and the 19-year-old from Odessa (a city in the country’s Russian-leaning half that has been described by the Daily Beast this week as torn in two) showed that she could give as good as she got from the baseline, she earned the fans’ respect. When Svitolina lasered one forehand for a winner, a gasp came from behind me, and a “Whoa!” came from in front of me. By the middle of the first set, you could almost hear people thinking, “Hey, this girl can play!”
The two women didn’t disappoint, as Ivanovic, after many ups and downs, winners and errors, fist-pumps and leg kicks, finally prevailed in third-set tiebreaker. Svitolina is a fighter, but she’s still learning not to fight herself. She served for the match twice in the third set and was broken both times; yet throughout the day she always bounced back from adversity, until it was too late to bounce back again. Late in the match, after missing a sitter swing volley into the net, Svitolina thrashed around in anger until she finally flipped herself over and crashed to the court. Yet she got up, won the next the points to break serve, and walked to the sideline with her index finger raised above her head.
Later in the afternoon, as the breeze died down and the flags went limp, Dolgopolov took the court. A native of Kiev, his game bears little resemblance to Svitolina’s. It bears little resemblance to anyone's, for that matter. One of the most gracefully explosive players in the game, Dolgo—he Westernized his first name from Oleksandr to Alexandr in 2010—plays in a constant whirl of buggy-whip forehands, sidespin backhands, and artful drop shots. For better or worse, whatever he wants to do with the ball, he can.
Last week, Dolgopolov recruited Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, and Gael Monfils to join him in a video to support peace in Ukraine. “It’s not about politics, it’s about people,” Dolgo says in the clip. Last month he said of the violence in Kiev, “Hopefully it ends ASAP and the country will live peacefully like before.”
As far as tennis goes, Dolgopolov can often seem a little too peaceful for his own good; he’s everything except a closer. But against Smyczek today, he didn’t let his brilliance go to waste. In the first-set tiebreaker, Dolgo earned a mini-break by taking a forehand return down the line and finishing the rally with a drop volley—few points have ever been won so nonchalantly. At match point, Dolgopolov blitzed a backhand onto the sideline for another winner; all Smyczek could do was shake his head in resigned appreciation—“too good,” his look said. If Svitolina exemplified fighting spirit today, Dolgopolov showed off the creativity that’s possible within the sport’s seemingly narrow confines. Since the crisis in his country began, he has played some of the best, most focused tennis of his career.
In the evening, Dolgopolov’s Davis Cup teammate, Sergiy Stakhovsky, took the court against Gael Monfils. Stakhovsky, a member of the ATP player council, is the most politically engaged and outspoken of the three Ukrainians. Last week he wrote an essay about his country for SI.com. In it, he said, “I can put my hand on my heart and say that 80 percent of the information on Russian TV these past three months has been a LIE.”
Yet Stakhovsky, who visited the demonstrations in Kiev in February, told USA Today this week that he can talk civilly with his Russian tour-mates.
“Sport is the thing that unites us,"he said. "I’m talking here to Russian guys frequently and normally because I know them for years.”
There are no world powers in tennis anymore, no global policemen carving up smaller countries the way there is on the political stage. The fall of the Iron Curtain, and the influx of its hungry young players, meant the fall of the United States from a position of dominance in tennis, especially on the men’s side. It also meant a gradual shift eastward: Since 1995, Serbia and Croatia have won as many Davis Cup titles as the U.S., and the Czech Republic has won the last two. Tennis, for all of its flaws, is something close to a global meritocracy, a place where talent and ambition can come from anywhere—east, west, north, south—and be rewarded. Right now, the players from Ukraine can put a face to their country’s talents and ambitions.
Stakhovsky, who played his match tonight in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, said he “chose to compromise” by staying on tour rather than returning to Kiev. If he did, he compromised for something equally worthy: A chance to join his colleagues and show what individuals left to their own devices can achieve, and how they can get along. A chance to make a crowd on the other side of the world sit up and say, "Hey, this kid can play!"