By Stephen Ratte
World number seven Andrey Rublev won his tenth career title in Dubai this weekend, a second tournament win in a row for the 24-year-old. He won fairly easily. His opponent, qualifier Jiří Veselý, couldn’t get his game off the ground after his fairytale run where he had seen off world number one Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Rublev broke early in both sets, and despite one dodgy service game where Veselý broke for 3-3 in the second (helped along by umpire Carlos Bernardes missing a clear let call on a Rublev serve, giving Veselý a free point), Rublev never seemed to lose grip of the contest. It was a straightforward match, and it was another ATP 500 title for Rublev among several earned over the last few years.
But the circumstances surrounding Rublev’s week in Dubai were anything but straightforward.
Earlier in the week the Russian had learned along with the rest of the world that his country had launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine. It’s a conflict that has shaken the lives of thousands around the world already, and it is a subject impossible to avoid when you’re an athlete representing a country which has just invaded another. Daniil Medvedev, playing in Acapulco, had been asked questions about the invasion in press and had advocated for peace. But, crucially, Andrey Rublev had been the one to go viral.
With a simple gesture that belied its significance, Rublev turned to the camera after winning his semifinal match against Hurkacz and began to write on its face, something he and other tennis players have done hundreds of times. And when he was done, the world saw his simple message.
“No War Please”.
A treatise on diplomacy it was not, but it got noticed. At least here in the U.S., tennis news rarely gains traction in the mainstream sports press with a few exceptions (mostly Serena Williams). ESPN’s article on Rublev’s message garnered thousands of retweets. In the context of the chaos of the past seventy-two hours it was a message that so many people could get behind, regardless of their knowledge or enthusiasm about tennis itself. And while many other athletes, Russian and Ukrainian alike, have spoken out against the war over the past few days, Rublev had become a prominent anti-war figure overnight. It can’t have been easy. It’s not as if Russia is known to idly suffer political or social dissidence, and to so publicly rebuke the nation’s foreign policy took more courage than many people can even comprehend.
Mental toughness is a cherished quality in sport, regardless of discipline, and it is somewhat of a cliche in tennis to say such things as, “the game is as much mental as it is physical”. But Rublev’s mental toll was on another level this week. For one, flying into Dubai and playing your first match that very day, managing the emotions following last week’s win in Marseille, and refocusing on the task at hand after barely over twenty-four hours to celebrate his last title are already barriers that would have safely explained away an early exit here. But given the events that followed, those obstacles were of little consequence. On Thursday, the day before Rublev wrote his now famous message on the camera, the Russian was already stating in press that he had been receiving negative messages online following the invasion. Now, if I had to read angry DMs about America’s terrible foreign policy from my Instagram followers on a daily basis, I might just have a nervous breakdown. I have 158 Instagram followers. Rublev has 324,000. He must’ve wondered exactly what people expected him to do, as a 24-year-old tennis player, to fix the situation. He spoke up for unity and peace in that same press conference. But that’s not the message that reached the masses.
“No War Please”.
And with all that added pressure, the uncertainty of his reception back home, and the eyes of tennis fans and outsiders alike keenly fixed upon him, Rublev won. It’s not hard to see the toll this week took on him. Compare this moment to last week’s finals win in Marseille. After winning the match in a tiebreak, he allowed himself a quick smile before jogging to the net to shake his opponent’s hand. In Dubai he dropped to his knees, his forehead touching the court, his face a mask of relief interwoven with ecstasy.
We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know what repercussions Rublev might face back home, and I’d be willing to bet that Rublev is wondering the same thing. There’s no way to know whether Rublev’s anti-war stance will have any effect whatsoever, as it hardly seems reasonable to expect Andrey’s simple gesture to move Russia’s leadership. But what Rublev did show this week in Dubai was his character. His mental toughness, in a truer sense than any tennis match could show, was on full display for the world to see. Rublev saw injustice and evil in the world and, at potentially significant personal cost, he spoke out against it. And that is worth any title in my book.