Andrey Rublev intended to express what was on his mind and in his heart. The red-haired Russian didn’t expect his simple message to go viral, or that he’d be seen as a hero for staging a personal protest one day after his homeland had brutally invaded Ukraine.
As happens at some tournaments, Rublev was given a marker pen to write a few words on a camera lens after his semifinal win at Dubai. Most players draw a heart or a smile or thank their family. Rublev, who had been receiving what he called “bad messages” since Russia began massing forces on the Ukraine border in preparation for its Feb. 24 attack, took a riskier tack.
“No war please,” he wrote.
His poignant plea resonated throughout tennis, which censured Russia but stopped short of censuring Russian athletes. Russia and ally Belarus were banned from the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup competitions, but the International Tennis Federation and the men’s and women’s pro tours permitted players from those countries to compete as neutral athletes at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Removing the national flag usually displayed beside each name had little impact.
Rublev made an impact in two ways: by teaming with Denys Molchanov of Ukraine to win the doubles title in Dubai, and by writing that statement on that camera lens.
“I was not even thinking how many people will see this or where it will go or something. I just wrote what I feel in that moment. That’s it,” he said Friday, after he advanced to the Indian Wells semifinals with a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov.
“After this, somehow it gets over 22 million views. I think I was one of the first sportsmen in the world who say this. In the end, yeah, all the messages I start to receive, almost 100%, all of them were only positive, like, ‘Thank you,’ stuff like that.”
Rublev, 24, is having an excellent season. His win Friday was his 13th in a row, and he ranks seventh in the world. The kid who used to sleep with his tennis racket grew up to develop a ferocious forehand that helped him win tournaments this year in Marseilles, France, and Dubai.
He hasn’t lost a set here, and Saturday he will face Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes for a place in the finals. Fritz, also 24, was a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-1 winner over Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia on Friday. Rafael Nadal, 35, will face Carlos Alcaraz, 18, in the other semifinal Saturday.
Rublev, who won an Olympic mixed doubles gold medal alongside fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the Tokyo Games last summer, is hitting stride in impressive fashion. But he also can’t ignore what’s happening in the world and Russia’s role in it.
“Of course, you cannot not see the news,” he said. “I try to don’t take everything, let’s say, to take all the information, because you never know if it’s true or not.
“All I can say is that, of course, it’s terrible that’s what’s happening. I feel really bad for everyone. I think that’s why sport have to be example. We have to be united, we need to be outside politic, to show example at least inside of sport. I think that would be good message, I don’t know, for a better world.”
Two former tennis players from Ukraine chose deeds over words.
Sergiy Stakhovsky, who ranked 116th in the world when he shocked Roger Federer in the second round at Wimbledon in 2013 and ended Federer’s streak of reaching 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals, has been patrolling Independence Square in Kiev and participating in humanitarian efforts.
“I am here because I believe that the future of my country — and the future of my kids, and the future of Europe as we know it — is under great danger,” he told the Associated Press. “And if there’s anything I can do to change the outcome, I will try to do it.”
Alexandr Dolgopolov said on social media he had taken military training to familiarize himself with guns. He also told the BBC that tennis should ban Russian players as long as Russia is attacking Ukraine.
“Letting them play just by saying a few words that they are against the way, I don’t believe this is enough,” Dolgopolov said. “I think every Russian is responsible for their government and their president. Just being neutral, taking away their flag, we know that is not changing anything.”
British sports minister Nigel Huddleston suggested this week athletes who want to compete at Wimbledon might be asked to denounce Russian president Vladimir Putin before they’re allowed to play. That would affect Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the current No. 1 men’s player in the world, as well as Rublev and many others.
“Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled,” Huddleston said. “We need some potential assurance that they are not supporters of Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to try and get some assurances along those lines.”
That’s a slippery and dangerous slope. And denouncing Putin easily could lead to retaliation against players’ friends or family members still in Russia.
Rublev, as with the rest of the world, had no solution.
“Like I said, I think we should show a great example that tennis should be outside of politic,” he said. “Not [only] tennis, but in general sport. We’re athletes. We want to compete. … I hope that in sport they will show there is no politics and we will be a good example to have, like, a huge step forward.”
His plea, “No war please,” was simple. The answer is far more complicated.