Tennis Players…War Now And In The Past

By Mark Winters

Share this article

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has become a practitioner of Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s maxim – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. On February 24th he launched a “Special Operation” in Ukraine purportedly to protect people who had been bullied; stop the genocide that was taking place; and demilitarize a country that needed de-Nazification.

This was done following his February 21st recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as separate People’s Republics. Putin’s eminent domain real-estate takeover in the area, kicked off on March 18, 2014 when a Russian incursion led to the incorporation of the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.

The world has been consumed watching the current savagery as it plays out. Emotions have gushed forth as two million Ukrainians have been displaced; thousands have died or been injured; and cities have been destroyed. The Russian “peace keepers” are seeking to bring about capitulation by carrying out a “Scorched Earth” initiative, while themselves suffering between 5,000 and 15,000 casualties, depending on the source.

Ukrainian firefighters respond to a rocket attack by the Russian military on a residential building near Kyiv. Photo: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Tennis has become a captive of what is taking place. The governing bodies – ATP, ITF and WTA – have suspended tournament competition in Russia, along with its willing accomplice Belarus, as well as participation in international cup competition.

Players, who were born and may still live or have family in Ukraine and Russia, have been in the forefront of the “This Must Stop…” messaging.

The photo from Daniil Medvedev’s tweet. Source: Twitter

Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, both Moscow born, have been outspoken. On Twitter, Medvedev, the new ATP No. 1, offered, “…I want to ask for peace in the world, for peace between countries. Kids are born with inner trust in the world, they believe so much in everything, in people, in love, in safety, in justice, in their chances in life.

“Let’s be together and show them that’s it true, because every kid shouldn’t stop dreaming.”

Following his Dubai Tennis Championship semifinal victory Rublev, (the tournament winner), wrote on the television camera lens, “No War Please” as he walked off court.

Andrey Rublev writing his message on the broadcast camera.
Image: The Times of India

Odessa, the third largest city in Ukraine with close to one-million inhabitants prior to the invasion, has existed for days with the possibility of imminent shelling from Russian forces. It is Elina Svitolina’s hometown. She has family and friends who remain there. On Twitter she posted a “Letter to my Motherland,” saying, “You are all in my thoughts and prayers. You are always with me. I am Ukraine. We are Ukraine.”

Dayana Yastremska was forced to shelter, with her family, in an Odessa underground parking garage for two nights before fleeing the country. Her father drove Dayana and Ivanna, her 15-year-old sister, to Izmail (close to a 150 mile trip) so they could meet a boat that took them to Romania. From there, they went to Lyon, France to participate in the Open 6e Sens Métropole de Lyon. Given a wildcard in the singles, Yastremska controlled her emotions aside and played her way to the singles final. Zhang Shuai of China ruined a storybook winning 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. (Dayana and Ivanna received a wild card in the doubles event but lost in the first round.)

Victoria Azarenka, who is from Belarus, used Twitter to express her feelings saying she was devastated by what was taking place. Her candor was in full flow when she added, “It’s heartbreaking to see how many innocent people have been affected and continue to be affected by such violence.  

“Since my early childhood, I have always seen and experienced Ukrainian and Belarusian people, as well as both nations, friendly and supportive of one another.

“It is hard to witness the violent separation that is currently taking place instead of supporting and finding compassion for each other.”

Victoria Azarenka’s tweet. Source: Twitter

On a daily basis, Putin’s utterances approach a Trumpian level of error strewn, fact-less-ness. His “de-Nazification” of the Ukrainian propaganda effort is a case in point…But, he persists.

Sergiy Stakhovsky, who was ranked No. 283 in mid-February, reacted to the threat to his country by returning home and joining the Ukrainian military reserves. He is the only current player to take up arms.

A political cartoon from the official Ukraine Twitter account. Source: Twitter

During World War II it was an entirely different situation. A significant number of elite players fought in the “real conflict” against Nazification. Some lost their lives attempting to halt Adolph Hitler’s swallow-up Europe aggression.

Between 1936 and 1938, Germany’s Henner Henkel and Gottfried von Cramm were among the best players in the world. Von Cramm was the Roland Garros singles winner in 1934 and again in ’36. Henkel claimed the Paris title in 1937 and teamed with von Cramm for doubles honors. The same year they also were the US National Doubles winners.

As good as they were on court, off it they were dramatically different. Henkel was an ardent Nazi. Von Cramm appeared to be the ideal Aryan. He was cultured and socially polished. He could have been a poster boy for the “Party”. However, his loyalty was to Germany and not Nazi ideology. Further, he happened to be gay.

Gottfried von Cramm playing at The Championships in 1937.
Source: Smith Archive

(Theoretically, they were examples of the “New Germany…’ which is the reason the government supported their 1937 world tour. The Pacific Southwest Championships, played September 19th to 26th, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, was their final stop. Shortly before the tournament began, the government ordered the players to return to Germany immediately after its conclusion.)

Henkel joined the army in 1942 and during the Battle of Voronezh (359 miles from Stalingrad), he was shot in the thigh. The wound became infected, and he died on January 13, 1943. Von Cramm, who referred to Hitler as a “house painter”, also ended up on the Eastern Front fighting the Russians. Both of his legs became frostbitten, and he was evacuated to a hospital in Warsaw to recover. Once there, he was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery then was dishonorably discharged from the army in 1942 because he wasn’t a Nazi loyalist.

The Blitzkrieg raced across Europe literally erasing army after army as they attempted to defend their national borders. Often the fighting was brutal. Poland is just one of the bloody examples.

A number of the country’s elite players were members of the Resistance. Ignacy Tłoczyński and Czesław Spychała, who were Davis Cup performers, were born in Posen (which is now Poznań, Poland) when it was part of the German Empire. Tłoczyński’s 1911 birthday was six years ahead of Spychała’s. Both were members of the “Ruczaj”, a Resistance battalion, and were involved in the Warsaw uprising. On August 1, 1944, they, along with some friends attacked an SS barracks. The battle lasted almost two hours. When it ended 72 soldiers surrendered.

Spychała first played Roland Garros in 1938. A year later he was captured when the Red Army invaded Poland. He was able to escape and became a member of the Resistance. Along with two others, he was wounded in the fire-fight with the SS. Captured again, this time by the Germans, he remained a POW until the war’s conclusion.

Czesław Spychała in 1932. Photo: Archive PL

Tłoczyński was wounded in a later skirmish, captured, and sent to Salzburg-Maxglan, a German POW camp. After being liberated by the Allies, he joined the 2nd Polish Corps. After the war, he emigrated to Great Britain.

(Spychała did the same. Coincidently, in July of 1946,  he won the Welsh Championships Men’s Singles and teamed with Tłoczyński for doubles honors.)

There are so many more who were devoted to the sport in the 1940s and were forced to put their racquets aside to defeat Nazism. Today’s competitors are justifiably distraught as they witness the daily atrocities. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a peaceful resolution to Putin’s “False Flag” de-Nazification campaign in sight.

(On September 28, 1941 the Nazis captured Kyiv, the Ukraine capital. At the time, around 34,000 Jews lived in the city and the surrounding area. Two days later, there were less than 30 Jews still alive. The SS and German police, in the largest mass-shooting during World War II, had taken their captives to a ravine called Babin Yar (or Babi Yar) a short distance from Kyiv and executed them. After the war, a monument was constructed in remembrance of those who had lost their lives to the Nazis. It is appalling to note that Putin’s de-Nazification pogrom has resulted in Russian forces shelling the city and damaging the Jewish memorial site.)

Perhaps Volodymyr Zelensky, the heroic Ukraine President who happens to be Jewish, said it best when the US offered an opportunity to evacuate, “…I need anti-tank ammunition not a ride…”

Title photo of Elina Svitolina playing Anastasia Potapova of Russia by Getty

The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 1

Share this article