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Sergiy Stakhovsky’s Turn to Serve

In mid-January 2022, Sergiy Stakhovsky announced he was retiring from professional tennis. The news did not make many headlines. Stakhovsky had carved out a nice career as a mid-tier player. He’d peaked at No. 31 in the world rankings and had been consistently one of the top men’s players in his home country, Ukraine. Back in ’13, he’d beaten Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It’s considered one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.

When he retired, Stakhovsky had just turned 36. He’d settled down in Budapest with his wife, Anfisa, and their three children, and had started running a winery. He was ready to move on to the next phase of his life.

Stakhovsky took his family on vacation to Dubai. He tried to relax, as his children splashed about in the water. Then he received a call from a friend. For months, Russia had been positioning troops around the Ukrainian border. Now, the friend told him, Russia would finally invade Ukraine the following day.

Stakhovsky phoned his parents, who still lived in the suburbs of Kyiv. He told them to gather their important documents, gas up the car and prepare to evacuate. He told his father to buy ammo for his shotgun, only to discover that ammo was hard to find nearby. “Everybody wants to shoot a Russian,” Stakhovsky says.

The next day, in the early morning hours, Stakhovsky woke up to his phone buzzing—it was his parents. Russia had invaded. In Dubai, Stakhovsky turned on the news and watched in horror as Russia began its bombardment.

In the suburbs of Kyiv, Sergiy’s older brother, Sasha, heard missiles fly over his house, a distinct whistling sound. “It’s kind of a new sound to your life,” Sasha recalls. Looking out his window, he could actually see them.

Stakhovsky followed the news from afar, trying to decide what he and his family should do. He wanted to help the effort in some way. Experts were predicting that Ukraine would fall quickly. But it seemed to be holding strong.

Two days into the Russian invasion, Stakhovsky and his family flew back to Budapest. Shortly after he’d unloaded the luggage in their apartment, Anfisa approached him. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

“She knew the answer,” Stakhovsky recalls. “I said, ‘I have to go.’ ”

He had to go back to Ukraine to fight in the war.

“She said, ‘You cannot go because you have three kids. It’s irresponsible,’ ” Stakhovsky recalls. “And she said, ‘If you are gonna go, you don’t have to return.’ I mean, she was furious.”

During this back and forth, Anfisa went to wash their daughter’s hair. Stakhovsky used that opportunity to pack his backpack. Their two other children were watching TV when Stakhovsky’s youngest saw him leaving. “He was running after me, saying, ‘Daddy, where you [going]?’” Stakhovsky told his son: “I’m just going to the garage. I’ll be right back.”

As he drove away, he wanted to turn back. But he kept going. In the moment, Stakhovsky felt “disastrous. It was the toughest decision I ever made.”

After trading his racket for a rifle, Stakhovsky posed in March 2022 in Kyiv’s Independence Square.Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Sergiy Stakhovsky was born in Kyiv in 1986, when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union. He was the second of Edward and Olga’s three boys. Edward was a renowned doctor, and Olga taught at a university. Young Sergiy drew, danced and played basketball. At an early age, his grandfather happened to give him a tennis racket. “I destroyed the apartment with a racket and a ball,” Sergiy recalls, “so they decided to send me off to tennis classes.”

He took a liking to tennis. But the Stakhovskys soon realized it was an expensive sport, especially in the ’90s in Ukraine, where there weren’t many indoor courts. One day, Edward started chatting with a patient who had a connection to a tennis club in the Czech Republic. The Stakhovskys sent 12-year-old Sergiy there to train for a summer. After that, the club invited him to come back full time. The costs would be covered, so long as he represented the club in competitions. And so Sergiy moved to the Czech Republic, along with his mother and younger brother. There, Sergiy found, the coaches were better, the competition stiffer.

The bet paid off. At 16, Stakhovsky beat Novak Djokovic on the junior circuit. At 18, he made it to the U.S. Open junior championship final, where he lost to Andy Murray. By his early 20s, he was a professional who could occasionally beat players ranked in the top 100.

Along the way, Stakhovsky adopted a signature style of play, the serve-and-volley, an aggressive strategy made popular by John McEnroe and Pete Sampras that can throw opponents off their game. “He wasn’t a very powerful player that would just try to destroy you from the baseline,” says Leo Stakhovsky, Sergiy’s younger brother, who played tennis at Penn State. “He was more a tricky player. He would try to outsmart you.” At 24, Sergiy was ranked No. 31 in the world.

A few years later, in 2013, Stakhovsky used the serve-and-volley to upset Federer in the second round at Wimbledon. “I remember [Federer] definitely not liking what I was doing,” Stakhovsky says. “Roger really couldn’t get a pace on his game that day.” Afterward, Stakhovsky was inundated with interviews and media requests and, he felt, didn’t have time to prepare for his next match, which he lost.

Over the next few years, Stakhovsky’s career would plateau. The modern game seemed to be built around speed, power, athleticism. The serve-and-volley was becoming obsolete. He was a top men’s player in Ukraine, sure. He could advance to the third round in a major—but never further. The Federer win would turn out to be the highlight of his career.

Listen to the podcast version of this story as part of Wondery’s Sports Explains the World series. Its episodes are titled “Volley and Serve: From Wimbledon to the Front Lines.”

In 2013, the year Stakhovsky beat Federer, Ukraine seemed to be on the verge of signing a deal with the European Union that would bring the country one step closer to joining it. That apparently did not sit well with Vladimir Putin and Russia, Ukraine’s neighbor to the east. That November, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, squashed the EU deal.

That led to mass protests in Ukraine, people marching in the streets, and Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia.

In early 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula with key strategic ports, and then Russia-backed separatists also took control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. Some Ukrainians went from the protests to fight the separatists in the East.

In the moment, Stakhovsky wanted to join them. But by then he was married, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. Stakhovsky decided to help the effort in other ways. He used his money and status to help get military equipment for the Ukrainian army: helmets, bulletproof vests, scopes and the like. During that period, he played a tennis tournament in Miami and lost in the first round. Before he flew back to Europe, he says, he went shopping and loaded up on more gear. “Everything I could get my hands on, I bought,” Stakhovsky says.

As a pro tennis player, Stakhovsky had lots of opportunities to talk to the media. In tennis circles, he was known for saying things in the press and on social media that created headlines—and not always in a good way. He has spoken out against equal pay for women players. He also once was quoted saying that “half” of professional women tennis players were lesbians—and suggested that was the reason he would not allow his daughter to play the sport. He has said those comments were misconstrued. At any rate, Stakhovsky has never seemed to have a filter nor seemed to care how he comes across.

After the conflict started, he also started using his platform to speak out about what Russia was doing in Ukraine. In March 2014, he wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the topic. Months later, after tensions had escalated, he was approached to write another column. This time, he says, “I replied that I cannot actually write about something which I don’t know, I didn’t witness.”

Stakhovsky decided to go see the conflict for himself. A connection he’d made transporting equipment agreed to take Stakhovsky close to the front lines, to a city in eastern Ukraine. Stakhovsky was given a bulletproof vest, a helmet and a Kalashnikov rifle. He had never held a Kalashnikov and didn’t know how to use it. During the excursion, he remembers looking at every tree, vigilant for enemy fighters, terrified his crew might be ambushed. Nothing happened. But once Stakhovsky got home, he was so stressed that he had a headache for three days. In that moment, he says he decided, “I don’t want to have that feeling again.”

From roughly 2014 to ’18, Stakhovsky attended training sessions at a tactical shooting academy in Slovakia when he wasn’t off playing professional tennis. Sometimes Stakhovsky’s instructor would stand close to the target as his pupil fired from 30, 40 meters away. The instructor was teaching him how to shoot under emotional stress. “And I was like, ‘Aren’t you a bit scared?’ ” Stakhovsky recalls. “He said, ‘Well, I trained you, so I decide the level of my trust in you.’ ” By the end of the training, Stakhovsky knew how to operate a handgun, machine gun and sniper rifle. “I thought that, you know, eventually I might need it,” he says.

Stakhovsky was known for his aggressive play, doing whatever he could to make his opponents uncomfortable.Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

By the time Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Stakhovsky’s circumstances had changed. He was newly retired from tennis. He had three children, yes. But he again felt that his home country needed him. “I represented the country throughout the 18 years of my career,” Stakhovsky says. “I stood up for the anthem. I sang the anthem. I went to Olympics. Everything which gives you that attachment, [that] emotion is there in me.”

Stakhovsky wasn’t obligated to go back to Ukraine. Any parent with three children was exempt from fighting. But, he says, “I had a certain skill set already. I know how to operate the gun safely. I know how to shoot. I know how to move. I know that I can actually be of service.” And so he left his family and went to fight.

“There’s still a chance that my kids will have to grow up without a father,” Stakhovsky says. But he’d also created a safe environment for them in Budapest. That’s how he rationalized it to himself. “I’ve [done] at least the minimum,” he says. “So they’re safe.”

His moral compass was pointing him in one direction. “It’s how I was raised, through my parents,” he says. “[Knowing] what is right, what is wrong. … And what Russia did is—not that it’s only wrong, it’s insane. And they have to be pushed back and they have to be punished for what they did.”

Stakhovsky arrived in Kyiv a few days after the Russian invasion began. He was handed a gun and assigned to a military unit in the city as a sort of support guard. He did odd jobs and patrolled the streets. One day, he found himself on a main street at the center of Kyiv around noon—and it was deserted. “Just emptiness. Bizarre,” he says.

Stakhovsky didn’t see much action then. The real fighting was in the suburbs, where the Russians were trying to advance on the Ukrainian capital and where the Ukrainians were holding their ground. Stakhovsky’s parents lived in the suburbs, not far from the front lines. His mother had fled, but his father had stayed behind to treat patients.

In the early days of the war, Stakhovsky went a few times to check on his father. They could hear explosions on both sides of the house, artillery thundering over them in both directions. The family dog turned gray, Stakhovsky says, “because he was covered in gunpowder.”

After a few months of fighting, the Russians had retreated, and it was clear they would not be taking Kyiv easily. At the start of the war, Ukraine had essentially given out guns to anyone who wanted to fight, to regular civilians like Sergiy Stakhovsky. Now, the nation could take stock of its military.

Stakhovsky was given a choice: Stay on with the military or return to civilian life. “I was prepared to fight in a city,” he says. “I didn’t have the training to fight in a field. Nor did I have any chance of understanding what a mortar is or artillery.”

Reluctantly, Stakhovsky decided to put down his weapon.

Stakhovsky couldn’t just leave the war effort behind, though. Just like in 2014, he started helping in other ways. Media requests had started pouring in shortly after he arrived in Ukraine, when word got out that a tennis player was fighting in the war. During the first month of the war, he estimates he did about 150 interviews in between his patrols.

Now that he was no longer serving, he also set about raising money to help the Ukrainian cause. His life now existed largely between Kyiv and Budapest, and he attended charity events in Slovakia and Poland. He made appearances at the French Open and U.S. Open. During his stop at Roland Garros he bumped into two Russian tennis players—Daniil Medvedev, one of the best players in the world, and Karen Khachanov. Both of them, Stakhovsky says, “turned away and didn’t look me in the eye.” (Neither returned requests for comment.)

Stakhovsky believes Russian and Belarusian athletes should be barred from participating in all major sporting events, including the 2024 Olympics, as the war rages on. It has been reported that since the start of the war more than 300 sports facilities have been destroyed in Ukraine and more than 200 athletes and coaches have been killed. “The next generation is not able to even join sports,” Stakhovsky says, “because there’s no electricity, there’s no facilities, there’s no infrastructure to join anywhere.” A whole generation of Ukrainian athletes has essentially been wiped out.

As a civilian Stakhovsky was once again supplying the Ukrainian military with equipment. Same as before. Helmets, bulletproof vests, scopes. Sometimes, he delivered the equipment to soldiers himself. He had befriended lots of military personnel, going back to 2014. Now, he was getting to know them better. One day, his military friends made him an offer: Did he want to go to the front lines with them?

He did. After Stakhovsky left the military, he found it difficult to do interviews, again, without firsthand experience. He says: “It’s hard to talk to the media from the position of, ‘Oh, it’s so bad in Ukraine. We need help. We need this and that …’ while you have the capability of actually participating in it and [doing] something about it.” Stakhovsky adds: “I’m healthy. I could be doing stuff instead of asking for help.”

Stakhovsky started going to the front lines as a volunteer fighter, and he estimates he went on about six missions in that role. Slowly he started getting the field experience that he felt he was lacking. On one of the missions, he says, “four of our guys got wounded. The team leader lost his eye in that mission. It was a heavy, heavy fight. Explosions were really nearby.”

Stakhovsky remembers being in an armored vehicle at one point on that mission when a missile landed just behind them, spiking up the car, and another missile landed in front of them, shattering the windshield. Stakhovsky says he and the others fled the car and headed for a forest that was blanketed in mines. They went looking for cover, going from one shelter to another, while under fire. “Being in a shelter which is fired upon—not the nicest feeling,” he says.

After a while, though, Stakhovsky got used to it. “I was slowly exposed to the act of war [and] how it feels on your skin,” he says. “Firsthand witnessing how the fight is going, being close to death, I thought it was gonna push me off the cliff, saying, You know what, just stay away. It’s none of your business. You have three kids, whatever. … You are too close. You’ve been lucky. Go home, take care.

But instead, the effect was the opposite. “I actually kind of triggered even more aggression,” Stakhovsky says. “It actually engaged me even more in terms of anger, in terms of willing to fight and risk.”

In September 2022, Stakhovsky decided to rejoin the military, signing a contract with the National Guard. It would mean less time in Budapest with his family. He’d be going to the front lines regularly.

Stakhovsky patrolled Kyiv earlier in the war but more recently has served as part of a mortar unit firing on Russian lines.Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

About one year into the war, in March 2023, I made tentative plans to visit Stakhovsky in Kyiv. I wanted to profile him as part of a new podcast series called Sports Explains the World. As we exchanged messages before my trip, Stakhovsky said he was going on a mission, and “the place I go to there is no guarantee to come back.” He had recently lost a friend in action, a soldier named Dmytro Kotsiubailo. He’d become famous in Ukraine—known by his nickname, Da Vinci—for being one of the youngest and bravest members of the military. Stakhovsky seemed to be thinking of his own mortality.

I met Stakhovsky at an apartment in downtown Kyiv for our first interview. He had bags under his eyes, and his hair was graying. He spoke quickly, which made everything seem more urgent. He had only so much time off before he had to return to action.

At one point Stakhovsky had been assigned to a mortar unit. He said he usually worked as perimeter support, as someone there to protect the operation rather than actually loading the mortar. Sometimes they’d hear explosions nearby, which might indicate the Russians were getting closer to discovering their location. “It’s luck,” Stakhovsky says. “If the shell is gonna come at you, it’s gonna come at you. … So far, I’ve been lucky.” He stressed that the Ukrainians were constantly in need of more ammunition, “because Russians have plenty.”

Stakhovsky had recently been on the ground, fighting closer to the front lines in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine. Experts had suggested that Bakhmut was not particularly important, strategically, in the bigger scope of the war. But it had come to take on a mythic status, simply because of how long the battle had dragged on there, since August 2022.

By the end of March 2023, Stakhovsky tells me, Russia had “almost encircled the city,” which had made it extremely dangerous to get in and out. He estimated that the chances of getting into the city, by car, in daylight were about 30%, and at night, 70%. “The city is completely destroyed; there’s not one building which stands,” Stakhovsky says. “Artillery [is] extremely loud, extremely intense. Basically every 30, every 45 seconds there’s explosions. Gunfights nonstop, whether day or night.”

Stakhovsky says he once helped facilitate a prisoner exchange involving Russian fighters from the Wagner Paramilitary Group, a collection of contract soldiers, many drawn from Russian prisons. “Our task was to escort them and deliver them,” he says. “Do not kill them, unfortunately.” If it were up to him, the Ukrainians wouldn’t take any of the Russians prisoner: “Because I see what [the Russian fighters] do. They take the best of Ukrainians while losing the worst of Russians. They don’t deserve to live.”

It sounded like a cold thing to say. I wondered whether the war had changed Stakhovsky, his mindset, his personality. “For sure,” he says, adding, “I became more aggravated, I would say. Less patience.” His younger brother, Leo, told me he doesn’t see Sergiy “smile as much anymore,” joke as much. “He always used to be a guy with a great sense of humor,” Leo says. “He was very charming in that way.”

About two months after my visit, Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut. On the front lines, death is never far away. “In Bakhmut, basically, you always don’t know,” he says. “A split second, and you’re not there anymore. You’re dead. We all walk a very thin line, but somebody has to walk it.”

The day after our first conversation, Stakhovsky drove from Kyiv to Budapest to see his children. I tagged along on the 13-hour journey, taking turns behind the wheel.

We arrived late at night; the following day was Stakhovsky’s daughter’s birthday. She was turning 9. The day after that, Stakhovsky met me at my hotel for another interview. He seemed to be in a brighter mood. “Yesterday morning I was able to greet her and sing her ‘Happy Birthday’ and give her the gift,” he says. When he’s back in Budapest, he gets the kids ready for school, takes them to all their various activities, tennis and gymnastics. “I’m trying to compensate for not being here,” he says, “and I’m trying to do as much as I can.”

At some point, Stakhovsky and Anfisa had decided to get a divorce. “It’s just one of the things that unfortunately turned out to not be a super story,” he says. But one year into the war, he and Anfisa had not yet told the kids about their split. They also hadn’t told the kids that their father was fighting in a war.

“I hope I will never have to tell them anything,” he says. “They don’t need to know.” When I press the subject, he continues on: “To tell them what? That I fought, that I’ve killed, that I’ve witnessed killing, that I’ve tried to save Ukrainians? I mean, what difference is it gonna make to them? It’s not gonna bring any positive to their lives.”

I hadn’t heard him mention killing before. I asked him whether he had killed a Russian.

“Of course,” he says. “I mean, our unit’s been, I wouldn’t say excellent, but been fairly good with mortars.” It’s a matter-of-fact thing for a soldier fighting in a war. “Mortars—you shoot a distance from three to five kilometers, you hit targets. Eventually, people in those targets die.”

I wondered whether he would continue fighting, given the toll the war seemed to be taking on him. “Once you sign up, you don’t know when it’s going to be over,” he tells me. “But you understand that you are willing to go the distance with your country, to make it over faster.”

“I have three kids—I always can resign,” he says. “But that must be confirmed by your commanding officer, and in that case, he doesn’t have to [accept the resignation]. So …”

Months later, as Stakhovsky and I are exchanging messages, he tells me he might be transferring to another part of the military, a more “elite branch,” as he describes it.

The war has plodded on, without either side turning the tide. In the United States, many Republican politicians are now arguing against continued American aid, a direct threat to the Ukrainian war effort. And so Stakhovsky continues not just to fight, but to tell the world what he has seen.

Every time he leaves Budapest, he tells his children he’ll be back, even though he knows he may not be. His kids make it difficult on him, too: “They come and cuddle, and they hug, and [they say], ‘Daddy, don’t leave.’ ”

For now, Stakhovsky has worked out a system for whenever he’s leaving Budapest, whenever he leaves his kids. He departs at night or early in the morning, while they’re sleeping. “Otherwise,” he says, “it would be impossible for me to leave.”

Additional reporting by Mary Mathis.


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