On a typically hot and humid day in Chennai, there was an intense battle on the outside courts of the SDAT Tennis Stadium during the Chennai Open ATP Challenger 100 event. It was not just another qualifying round match considering the protagonists’ nationalities.
In a closely fought contest, Russian Alibek Kachmazov prevailed over Ukraine’s Vladyslav Orlov in straight sets 6-4, 7-6(4) to reach the main draw.
Though not many words were exchanged, the tension was palpable considering the current geo-political climate following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. To illustrate, the two players did not even have the customary post-match handshake at the nets.
Despite the loss, being on the tennis court itself is a big deal for the Ukrainian player.
Hailing from Kharkiv, a city close to the Russian border, Orlov’s house was damaged in the strikes last year. The 27-year-old said he was lucky to have left the country just a week before the war. Since then, he has managed to find a base in Germany and travel worldwide to play tennis.
When asked if he felt any extra pressure to do well, considering his opponent was Russian, Orlov played it down, saying he focused on the ball more than the player.
But prod him further on the conditions back home, and if he could see a Russian player as distinct from his government, Orlov did not hold back.
“I don’t care. I mean, I cannot do anything. If it were up to me, of course, I would then ban these guys because it is not normal. I don’t have a house now, why? I’m playing against a guy sponsored by some companies supporting the war. I don’t know, that’s not fair for me, but I cannot influence this. So, my job is to go and play,” said Orlov.
“It’s a disaster actually (conditions back home). The Russians have been bombing our cities, killing our people every day. Sometimes, people don’t have electricity for up to 16 hours a day, and it’s pretty cold in Ukraine right now, with temperatures going to minus 15 to 20. So, it’s pretty cold, dark and dangerous. It’s a question of survival.”
“I think all the Russian and Belarusian players should be banned until their countries stop invading other countries. In the 21st century, you cannot invade other countries, kill people or destroy houses and kindergartens,” he added.
After his family moved from the eastern to the western part of Ukraine, Orlov found some crucial support from his mother, Olena Ludina, who has recently been travelling with him as his coach. It has made a difference to his fortunes on the court, as he managed to win a few tournaments last year.
Ludina is a doctor and was once an under-16 Table Tennis champion in the erstwhile USSR. Speaking on Monday, Ludina said, “We try to support each other. Otherwise, it will be problematic. When I first went with him to a tournament in Croatia, he won (25K ITF World Tour). Before that, he lost a lot and didn’t eat, sleep or practice.”
Recently he was part of Ukraine’s Davis Cup team and won the first match against Lebanon and spoke about how good it was to be amongst his compatriots.
“It was good to see my teammates in the Davis Cup. We found the right spirit. We won (3-1); I won the first match. It was a good moment during these tough times. It was good to support the guys. We put all the money together and sent it back to Ukraine to the army. I’m doing my best to help.”
Ranked 387 in the world, it is a tough life on the road for Orlov as he has minimal financial backing and only some equipment sponsors. While two other famous Ukrainian tennis players, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, have joined the army and fought on the frontlines, Orlov is trying to represent his country on the tennis courts.
“I don’t know him (Alexandr Dolgopolov) personally, but I know Sergiy Stakhovsky. We are in touch; we talk with each other. He’s there, helping Ukrainians. He has been to the frontline, bringing ammunition and food, fighting in the border area, and helping people. (I have) So much respect for him.”
On the challenges of playing tennis with his country in turmoil, Orlov said, “The first three to four months, it was very tough to play. After that, I just told myself to keep going.”
“Tennis helps me take my mind away from it, and I am more motivated to do well now. The army is fighting in tough conditions, so I must do the same here, whether it is hot or humid and win. It did not happen today, but I will try next week.”
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