Tennis star Alex Dolgopolov is still fighting Russians in Ukraine

EXCLUSIVE A year after our last interview, tennis star Alex Dolgopolov is still fighting Russians in Ukraine… his account of life on the front line is astonishing

  • Former world No 13 Alex Dolgopolov is serving Ukraine on the front line 
  • The 36-year-old enlisted in the army after retiring from tennis 18 months ago
  • He admits his professional career now seems a completely different existence

In late summer, while some of his former rivals were preparing for the US Open, Alex Dolgopolov was huddled in a trench, in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine.

He knew that his small unit had been spotted and that the firing towards them was getting closer and closer to its intended target. Having now spent so much time around the front line, the former world No 13 tennis player has learned a lot about the trajectories of 120 millimetre shells.

He talks matter-of-factly about their ‘exits’ and ‘arrivals’, as if he was describing the layout of an airport.

‘You’re sitting there and after a few rounds, you already start to get the sequence,’ says Dolgopolov, his country’s top male tennis player of recent times, who six years earlier had got as far as the fourth round at Flushing Meadows.

‘We had worked fifteen hours the day before and then were back on at 4am, so we were all just like zombies having energy drinks. Then we knew that one mortar is firing every two minutes, and the second one is firing 40 seconds after that, and it was just getting closer. You’re a metre underground. It’s coming to within 30 metres, and then 20 metres and then it got as close as 15. That’s close for 120 millimetre.

Former tennis world No 13 Alex Dolgopolov (above) serving Ukraine on the front line

‘You really feel them go through your body when they land. After it exits you know there’s about 20 seconds when the shell is flying towards you. So you hear the exit and you are waiting to see the arrival.

‘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. 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.

‘This one eventually was close enough to give all three of us there heavy concussions, the blast went right through me.

‘But you know they don’t have unlimited shells so you know it is going to end, firing non-stop is expensive. Once they stopped, we went out and continued to work.’

Dolgopolov gives this vivid description of his wartime experiences while sitting, close to midnight, in his apartment in Kyiv, where he has been on leave while waiting for his next deployment.

We had spoken twelve months ago in a wide-ranging interview about his new life and, with the conflict still raging after the invasion of February 2022, it seemed appropriate to catch up on his year of living dangerously.

Although he has only just turned 36, he admits that his professional career now seems a completely different existence. An agile baseliner with a highly distinctive, whippy service action, he was good enough to have beaten Rafael Nadal at Queen’s in 2015, and to have reached the Australian Open quarter finals.

Dolgopolov admits that his professional career now seems a completely different existence

When hostilities broke out he was among the Ukrainian athletes who quickly took up arms. Subsequently he has become an expert drone operator, his role to sit just behind the forward positions and help direct attacks.

‘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. 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.’

Among the many things he has gleaned is the potential cost of human error, which is probably what caused the attack that led to his concussion: ‘If someone does a bad job in hiding and they see you, they start shooting and that’s the worst part. You just try to stay in the trench and hope nothing lands on you.’

Dolgopolov says that resolve remains strong, but his tone is perhaps less bullish than a year ago. Clearly he has witnessed some terrible things, and become accustomed to the realities of war. Friends and comrades from his unit have perished.

‘We lost really good guy just two weeks ago. A nice guy, a Georgian. He actually took a loan from the bank to come to fight for Ukraine. So that was a painful loss for us, he was 25 years old. So yeah, the longer it goes, the more people you see dying around you.

‘For sure I’m not as happy as I as I used to be, life is more stressful. I used to be a really easygoing person, always smiling and joking. We still joke but you pay the toll of the war, it’s mentally exhausting, you pay for it.’

Ukrainian Dolgopolov enlisted in the army after retiring from tennis 18 months ago

There is also the acute frustration that they are not being supplied with sufficient tools to fight against a vast war machine. 

He reluctantly concurs with the wider view that it is currently difficult to defeat an enemy which has no reservations about throwing an endless number of young Russian men into the grinder, backed up by a mass of military hardware.

‘Unfortunately, our partners don’t have a goal of us winning. It’s obvious for everyone that we are getting just enough to keep going but not to win. From our side on the battlefield, it’s obvious that we don’t have enough to finish this,’ he laments, citing one of the operations which he was involved with.

‘We had in our (attacking) formation Nissan Patrol cars, which have no armour at all. So eventually they drove on an anti-tank mine. The car flew up in the air and spun, and they were very lucky to survive, although one of our guys lost a leg. It’s a big problem – if there’s a day of battle Russians put out 15 heavy armour vehicles, we put out five. They have an advantage in shells and in heavy armour. So that’s why it’s getting so tough. It’s just mathematically impossible. They have more people, they have more of almost everything.’

These scenarios are, of course, about as far removed as imaginable from the gilded existence of a top tennis pro that he once knew. It is one that dozens of Russian and Belarussian players continue to enjoy and profit from, with Wimbledon and British tennis having had to back down this summer from their stance of banning them, under threat of heavy sanction from the tours.

The policies of his former sport are something else he appears resigned to: ‘We see the decisions that have been made. There’s not much to say about it. I see what is happening in tennis, some results, because I am on Twitter (X), but I don’t know when I last watched a match. It seems like a different life.’

Adrian Mannarino is among a handful of ATP players who have agreed to play in St Petersburg

One thing he does get animated about is an unofficial exhibition tournament staged this weekend in St. Petersburg. 

A handful of his direct contemporaries who are still active, such as Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut and French No 2 Adrian Mannarino, have opted to join the Russians taking part (as independent contractors they are free to do so). Dolgopolov can barely spit out his contempt for them.

‘That’s a disgrace, especially from the European players. I can’t understand that, I don’t know what they’re thinking. They just get the black money. The Russians threaten Europe daily by nuclear attack, with energy blackmail, and they still choose to go there and make some money. Those guys are not desperate for money. I mean, Bautista has been on tour for fifteen years and Mannarino pretty much the same. So for me to see that is a joke. It’s pathetic.’

As for the conflict, he has no more idea than anyone else how long he will be caught up in it: ’Any projects for the future have to be on hold. I don’t plan anything, you know. I plan for for a day, two days, three days, whatever. When you are in a war how can you?’

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