‘I beat Rafael Nadal in England and now I fight on the front line in Ukraine’

Alexandr Dolgopolov has been fighting on the front line in his home of Ukraine since his nation was invaded by Russia in 2022. A former world No 13, he had only announced his retirement a year before he returned to Ukraine to join the military. During his playing career, Dolgopolov defeated players like Rafael Nadal but his tennis career now feels worlds away after spending almost two years fighting for his country.

Dolgopolov enjoyed success on the tennis tour, reaching the Australian Open quarter-final, two Masters semi-finals and winning three titles, with the most recent coming in 2017. The Ukrainian also managed to beat Nadal twice in a row at the 2014 Indian Wells Masters and at Queen’s in 2015 during the British grass-court season.

The 35-year-old last played in the 2018 Rome Masters where he lost to Novak Djokovic and it became the final match of his career as he announced his retirement in 2021. Since then, life has been completely different for Dolgopolov, who returned to Ukraine as a volunteer when the war began last March.

He enlisted in the army and now fights on the front line, serving as a drone operator. “You show them where to shoot, they see the video and they can work more accurately. Then there’s the gathering of info for any operation on the ground, maybe an assault,” the former top 15 tennis star told the Daily Mail.

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“When our guys are pushing, we control that from the sky. You learn what weaponry the enemy have, how it sounds, where they can see you. When you’re driving you have to understand where the enemy can have visual contact of your car, which is dangerous.”

After spending 12 years on the tennis circuit, his old life is now a distant memory and Dolgopolov has quickly had to learn how to react in the trenches and has become well-accustomed to 120-millimetre shells fired by the Russians. He continued: “With the 120 millimetres, they say that if it lands less than eight metres from you there’s a chance that, even if the debris don’t hit you, there will be a rupture of your organs because of the blast.

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“You have interesting thoughts sitting there and you can’t do anything. You think, should I leave the trench, maybe you could reach the car, which is for sure the worst decision you can make.”

After more than 18 months on the front line, Dolgopolov has been confronted with the harsh realities of war, watching people “dying around [him].” The 35-year-old is no longer as “happy” as he once was, with the conflict taking its toll. But he refuses to give up and is currently waiting for his next deployment.

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