Until just a few days ago, some tennis fans would probably greet the name Elina Svitolina with an eye roll and shrug. A gifted 27-year-old who has won 16 titles and has been ranked as high as No. 3, Svitolina was also prone to coming unglued under pressure in big tournaments.

Until the other day, Sergiy Stakhovsky, a 36-year-old who retired from tennis without fanfare after failing to qualify for the Australian Open this year, was a mid-level pro best known for having once stunned Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

Today, as invading Russian forces rain hell on defense units and civilians alike in Ukraine, Svitolina and Stakhovsky stand as paragons of courage—proving, once again, that the most unlikely people can pop up to become heroes when the stakes are enormous—bigger than any tennis tournament. When it's time to STFU and do or at least say something meaningful.

In a small way, Stakhovsky and Svitolina put us in mind of their nation’s courageous president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine's Elina Svitolina after her emotional, first-round win over Russia's Anastasia Potapova in Monterrey (watch match point above).

Ukraine's Elina Svitolina after her emotional, first-round win over Russia's Anastasia Potapova in Monterrey (watch match point above).


Svitolina, generally one of the more cheerful players on tour, went beyond broadcasting her support for her homeland on social media platforms. She declared that she would protest Russia’s actions by refusing to play a match against any Russian player, a decision that served as a wake-up call to the WTA. Partly as a result of Svitolina’s principled stand, the international governing bodies of tennis, including the WTA, introduced sanctions that, among other things, pulled the plug on tournaments in Russia. While Russian players will be allowed to participate in tournaments globally, they are barred from competing in the name of, or under the flag of, Russia.

Svitolina’s refusal to play against a Russian may not have seemed fair to some of her peers but—hold that thought for a moment.

Stakhovsky, whose career-high ranking was No. 31, declared over the weekend that he is returning to Ukraine to fight, saying on a social media post (via translation): “I am proud of every Ukrainian. I am proud to be Ukrainian. Believe in our military. . . believe in our invincibility. Glory to Ukraine.”


So let’s get back to that “fairness” issue. It may not seem right for Svitolina, or the tennis powers, to punish a Russian player for “actions” (if that’s the right word for a horrific, unprovoked invasion) over which he or she has no control. But this is no longer one of those little pissing matches to which a cosmopolitan, globetrotting athlete can just say, “Sorry, I’m an athlete, not a politician,” or “I don’t have all the details so I can’t speak to that,” or “This isn’t really my business.” This is everyone’s business now.

And it is certainly not one of those times when it’s okay to fall back on that craven and irrelevant self-defense, “Don’t look at me, I’m for world peace.”

That just isn’t good enough. Not now.

Ironically, one of the first high-profile athletes to respond to the invasion of Ukraine was the 24-year-old emerging Russian tennis star, Andrey Rublev. He won the prestigious tennis tournament in Dubai on Sunday (incidentally, the UAE has declined to “take sides” in the Ukraine crisis), then wrote on a camera lens, “No war please.”

Rublev, ranked No. 6, is without doubt a well-meaning kid. It certainly took some courage to be the first one to break the shocked silence with a condemnation of the invasion. His message also was a cut above the usual “I’m for world peace” tosh.

Not long thereafter, Rublev’s compatriot, No. 1-ranked Daniil Medvedev, wrote a florid Instagram post about children and their dreams, declaring that he’s asking for “peace in the world, for peace between countries.”

Nice sentiments. But a more useful reaction might have been a strongly-worded rebuke of his nation’s leaders, because Vladimir Putin also wants world peace. He just wants it on his terms, at the point of his bayonet.

Alexander Ovechkin will be under a microscope for his support of Vladimir Putin.

Alexander Ovechkin will be under a microscope for his support of Vladimir Putin.


In sports thus far, the bar for looking the other way as Ukraine burns is set pretty low. One person to thank for that is the fantastic Russian hockey player, Alex Ovechkin. The captain of the Washington Capitals and viable successor to Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring mark, Ovechkin is a real-life pal and longtime fanboy of Putin. Ovechkin even started a social movement in support of Putin, and proudly put a photo of the two of them together at the top of his Instagram account.

When reporters asked Ovechkin about the invasion last Friday, “The Great Eight” trotted out some not-so-great cliches.

“He’s my president but … I’m not in politics,” Ovechkin said, as if he had somehow been mistaken for the mayor of St. Petersburg. “I’m an athlete and, how I said, I hope everything is going to be done soon. . . . it’s a hard situation right now for both sides… I'm not in control of the situation. . . I have lots of friends in Russia and Ukraine, and it’s hard to see the war. I hope soon it’s going to be over and there’s going to be peace in the whole world.”

Both sides, Alex—really? “Lots of friends” in Ukraine. Really, Alex?

People—fans—rush for all kinds of reasons to the defense of athletes who tap dance around questions of accountability, and standing up for what is right. Athletes from authoritarian lands, the thinking goes, may endanger families left back home if they speak out. But in this case, nothing they tweet or post could give them more to fear than Dayana and Ivanna Yastremska. The Ukrainian sisters fled to the West a few days ago, while their father, Oleksandr, was obliged to remain behind to join the defense forces.


No, it’s far more likely that elite athletes are using relatives as human shields to protect themselves from criticism than fear for their relatives' lives. I know that’s easy to say, but when was the last time you heard about retribution against a family member on the heels of frank comments by a celebrity athlete?

The silence of some major tennis stars has been resounding. Belarussan president Alexander Lukashenko, a true carrion-feeder, recently partnered up with Putin in the attack on Ukraine. But the only thing we’ve heard from often outspoken Belarussan star Victoria Azarenka is a retweet, posted days ago, of the brief video-clip of Rublev signing the camera lens.

And what about Maria Sharapova, the flag-bearer for the Russian Olympic team at the 2012 Summer Olympics? Sharapova was forced to escape Russia to hone the tennis skills that yielded, among other things, a career Grand Slam. Yet she has insisted on retaining her Russian citizenship, and has more often expressed patriotic sentiments about Russia than gratitude for the opportunities and support she has been able to enjoy in the U.S. Her love of Mother Russia is rooted, she has said, partly in the “mentality and toughness” of the Russian people. Those two qualities do not exactly look like virtues these days. What are you thinking, Maria?

Social media, an instrument that enables self-regarding people to parade their virtue, has created an E-ZPass lane for those wishing to broadcast their belief in things like world peace, or social justice, without having to emerge from their cocoons of privilege. But what users don’t say, or the judgments they withhold at key times, tells us as much or more about them than any hashtag “Stand with” posturing.

Another elite Russian athlete emerged in recent days to go beyond merely saying nice things about world peace. Clearly referring to Putin, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, last year’s French Open runner-up, wrote on social media:


Pavlyuchenkova probably is the person Svitolina was talking about when, explaining her decision not to play against Russians, she added: “Moreover, I wish to pay tribute to all the players, especially Russians and Belarusians, who bravely stated their position against the war. Their support is essential.”

Sometimes, ​seemingly ​noble calls for world peace​, preordained to​ land on deaf ears​,​ just ​doesn’t cut it​.