by Robert Davis|
Known for his trademark military salute and fighting spirit, Russian hero Mikhail Youzhny continues to carry on his late father’s legacy with the guidance of his long-time coach.
Mikhail Youzhny strokes the ball smoothly and accurately across the net placing it within easy reach of his longtime coach Boris Sobkin’s forehand. Youzhny, the St. Petersburg Open defending champion, is preparing for his semi-final match. They warm up in silence. After 18 years together, words are not necessary between this player and his coach. Now as they hit, Sobkin is wondering if Youzhny has enough energy left in the tank today to compete with the talented Dmitry Tursunov.
He would soon find out.
Locked at four games all in the first set, Tursunov’s powerful ground strokes have Youzhny on the run. All the racing from side to side has left Youzhny’s leg weary and bone tired, for he has not fully recovered from a viral infection that forced him to pull out of the previous week’s Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Yet, despite it all, Youzhny has just broken Tursunov’s serve to take a 5-4 lead in the first set. Now his body is fast breaking down. Youzhny asks Chair Umpire Carlos Bernardes for a toilet break. Request granted and he quickly rushes to the locker room where he is soon doubled over and puking his guts out.
“For me he is what means Russian man: serious, hard worker and big fighter.”
Back on the court, Youzhny manages to hold serve and take the first set.
Though the crowd is clearly favouring Youzhny, Tursunov is not backing down and after taking the second set, he has now broken Youzhny’s serve in the third. Serving at 4-2, Youzhny put up a defence that would have made Peter the Great proud. It would last for 13 minutes and 50 seconds. And when it was over, Youzhny had broken back and the crowd was shaking their heads in amazement and clapping wildly.
Throughout the match, Youzhny has been working the Tursunov backhand with off-speed slices and heavy spin forehands. Normally Youzhny does not grunt much at all, but when he does it comes from the forehand side and it means he is on the attack. It is not so much a grunt as a command, as if he is ordering the ball on a special mission. The next few games becomes a tug of war between the two men as Youzhny fights off the powerful Tursunov attack while he tries to sink his teeth into the meat of the point. For the man the Russians affectionately call ‘Mischa’, Mikhail Youzhny’s primary weapons are easy to detect: head, heart and legs.
At six feet tall and 160 pounds, Mikhail Youzhny does not tower over his opponents. His clean-cut face is accented by thick dark eyebrows and a hard set jaw. When determined, his features make for an imposing scowl. But when Youzhny is happy, a pair of dimples and a slight gap in the front teeth show a million-dollar smile.
Tursunov and Youzhny would continue to battle with each other until the final set tie-break. Immediately, Tursunov surges to a 6-3 lead. With his back pinned to the wall and facing three match points, Mikhail Youzhny is taking a beating like in a Rocky Balboa movie. Boris Sobkin is in the front row of the tribune, head in hands, rocking back and forth in his seat. There is just one problem for Tursunov. This is where Youzhny is most dangerous.
When it is over, and Mikhail Youzhny had somehow found a way to stave off defeat, Boris Sobkin was walking in the corridor with his hands clasped behind his back and shaking his head.
“This match is all you need to know to understand Mischa,” states Sobkin. “How you say? A picture is worth more than a thousand words.”
Ektarina Kempik, a waitress at the Gran Hotel Europa in Saint Petersburg, came to see Mikhail Youzhny play.
“I like him so much,” says Kempik. “I saw him in the restaurant of hotel many times and he is like star in Russia. For me he is what means Russian man: serious, hard worker and big fighter.”
Legendary Russian tennis player, Alex Metreveli, agrees.
“He is really a great fighter,” says Metreveli. “I cannot even remember how many matches he has won in tough situations. Russian people respect Mischa because he is a man who works hard. And his fighting spirit is just incredible. What he did in Paris for Davis Cup is just one of many such examples.”
Metreveli is referring to the 2002 Davis Cup Final in Paris. As typical of the French, it was a gala affair. French President Jacques Chirac was in attendance, and also Russian President Boris Yeltsin. With Grand Slam winners and ATP World Tour stars Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the team, few if any thought that the young 20-year-old Mikhail Youzhny would see live action. Even Youzhny himself did not believe it.
“[Father] was Colonel in Soviet Army. And he stops his career to support our tennis each day.”
“Captain says to me on first day that maybe I play final rubber as Kafelnikov was not 100 per cent fit,” recalls Youzhny. “But I did not believe him. How I can play important match with star like Yevgeny on team? And then Sunday morning I see Yevgeny arrive in running shoes and no racquets. Then I understand that I must play for Russia.”
Tatiana Naumko, the longtime coach of Russian tennis star Andrei Chesnokov has known Youzhny since he was eight years old. She was in Paris for that Davis Cup.
“Before match, I spoke to him,” says Naumko. “I say, ‘Mikhail, you must be like robot. Don’t think so much about situation. Just be robot: backhand, forehand, forehand and backhand, crosscourt and down the line. Be robot, Mikhail.’”
Not bad advice from one of Russia’s most successful tennis coaches, but just like a character from a Tolstoy novel, Youzhny was dealing with multiple burdens. Yes, there was the pressure of playing the final and deciding match of a Davis Cup Final. But there was something else; only one month earlier, Mikhail’s father had died unexpectedly.
“Everything that we have is because of our father,” says older brother and former player Andrei Youzhny, who was with the Russian team in Paris. “We are in tennis because of father. We are with Boris (Sobkin) because of father. Papa made so many sacrifices for our tennis. You know, he was Colonel in Soviet Army. And he stops his career to support our tennis each day. And Papa and Mischa are both born on same day, June 25th. Tell me, what is chance of that?”
The stage was set and the Davis Cup trophy would be decided between France’s Paul-Henri Mathieu and Mikhail Youzhny. From the start, Mathieu was the better player, winning the first set and quickly going up a break in the second.
“I knew exactly what was problem with Mischa,” claims Andrei. “He had so many emotions inside of him and he could not play. I could see he had the wrong emotions. I knew what I must do.”
Andrei sent a message to the Captain Shamil Tarpischev for Mischa to take toilet break. That would be his opportunity to talk with his younger brother. When Youzhny returned to the court he was given a warning from the chair umpire for receiving coaching. Whatever Andrei said must have been very powerful, because Mikhail Youzhny instantly became a different beast. Youzhny clawed his way back to even the match and then seized the Davis Cup for Russia in the fifth set.
“So many people ask me and Mischa what I said to him,” says Andrei. “We never say. And I will not tell you what I said because it is between family only.”
“It was so tough feeling for me because father had just died,” Youzhny admitted. “On one moment I was very happy. And another I was wanting my father to see me play such an important match for Russia. For him to give us everything so we could play tennis and then not to see me play was really, really tough.”
“For him to give us everything so we could play tennis and then not to see me play was really, really tough.”
“It was terrible,” recalls Sobkin. “Happiness, sadness. Happy to win, but sad his father could not see him. So many tears from everybody.”
It was his father, Mikhail Youzhny Sr., who decided that his sons should play tennis. And like many boys, little Mikhail followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Andrei.
“In summer we learn tennis,” says Andrei. “And in winter we learn figure-skating. Then one day when we get a little older, the coach speaks to father if we want to play tennis seriously. If we want to try professional, we must go to Spartak Club. Father said, ‘Yes, why not. Let us try.’”
It would be easier said than done. Every day they would make the long commute to the Spartak Club. It would take them over an hour each way, underground by metro and then two buses. And their mother, an economist, would take on two extra part-time jobs to help pay for it.
“At Spartak Club we have such a good tradition of players,” says Tatiana Naumko, “Little boys many times were standing behind fence watching Andrei (Chesnokov) practice. He was like hero to young boys. And little Mischa was there behind fence watching too.”
“Our parents had to find a way to get us a coach,” says Mikhail Youzhny. “It was not so easy. In the beginning me and Andrei would watch how coaches were working with students. Then we would make our own drills with a bag of old balls that we collected.”
“Mischa and Andrei were practising together all the time without coach,” remembers Sobkin. “In the beginning, Mischa is all the time breaking racquets and crying. Not so many coaches want to work with boy with strong character like this. So, they would practise on one court for 15 minutes and then comes a member so they must leave court immediately and move to another court. Ten minutes maybe 20 minutes later comes another member and like this all day. There was something in Mischa’s eyes, a sparkle, maybe, I don’t know. Sometimes the eyes tells more than parents. Of course, I did not see Mischa is Top 10 player then. But I could see he had something special.”
It was in 1995 that Mikhail Youzhny, a 13-year-old ball boy, got his first taste of what being a Russian hero was like. In the deciding match of the Davis Cup tie of Russia versus Germany in Moscow at the Olympic Stadium, Chesnokov saved 10 match points against Michael Stich for a 14-12 victory.
“After the match there were so many people wanting to be near Chesnokov,” remembers Youzhny. “I went to locker room and so many people surround Andrei and he could not see that he forgot his tennis shoes on floor. I was so small that I could see them on the floor, and I took the shoes and put them in our apartment. They are still there today.”
When asked if any other Russian players had an influence on young Mikhail Youzhny, Boris Sobkin replied tongue-in-cheek. “Let us say like this, ‘Fortunately, other Russian players did not disturb him too much.’”
“There was something in Mischa’s eyes, a sparkle, maybe.”
Maybe not other players, but there is no denying the influence of coach Boris Sobkin. It is true that Sobkin did not follow the ranks of the traditional tennis coach. Instead, he worked as a professor of mathematics at a very prestigious Soviet University. Still he was a good enough amateur player to be a sparring partner for Chesnokov.
“He is so smart,” says Andrei Youzhny. “Boris is always studying everything and how to make Mischa better. Even after all these years. Boris is like idol for me.”
“Boris’s mind does not have limit,” says Naumko. “He is constantly learning. And I believe that this is why Mischa is still improving at his age.”
And make no mistake, Mikhail Youzhny is still improving at 28 years old. He matched his best ever showing in a Grand Slam at this year’s US Open where he defeated John Isner, Tommy Robredo and Stanislas Wawrinka en route to the semi-finals, where he lost to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. He followed that performance by winning the Malaysian Open two weeks later for his seventh ATP World Tour title.
When asked about his good form this year, Youzhny was coy.
“What means good year?” Youzhny asks furrowing his dark eyebrows. “Sometimes you start the year good, and then you finish bad. Or sometimes opposite. I think better to wait until season is over and then evaluate.”
“Youzhny is extremely solid mentally,” states Peter Lundgren, coach of Stanislas Wawrinka. “He has the ability to adapt to all types of conditions. And he can change the speed and direction of the ball very quickly. But his backhand slice is one of the best in the world. His slice has a lot of variety and he can neutralise an opponent’s offence quickly with it.”
While the slice keeps Youzhny alive, it is the topspin backhand down the line that deals the deathblow. Though his racquet hand is strong and calloused, when he strikes the ball it is as if he is wearing a velvet glove. However, if there is a chink in his armour it is his serve, or the lack of it. Youzhny serves up less aces than a poor luck poker player.
“That is something that must improve,” admits his brother. “I am confident that Boris will find a solution.”
“Actually, we have a lot of things to improve,” states Sobkin. “We are planning now. But, of course, I will not discuss this publicly.”
“Boris’s mind does not have limit... I believe that this is why Mischa is still improving at his age.”
“Boris sees tennis the way few people do,” says ATP World Tour player and close friend, Sergiy Stakhovsky. “He is extremely intelligent and his practices with Mischa are very unique, a lot of angles. But there is more. You know he and Mischa have very interesting relationship. They both read so much. I mean Mischa is reading so many books all the time. When I first started to be around them, I was surprised at how high level conversation they are having. And Mischa is always joking with Boris, but then Boris is joking back to Mischa but higher level joke. And they keep going and on like this and in the beginning I was like, ‘Wow, what planet is this?’”
Youzhny’s bid for a place in the 2010 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals came to an end when a back injury forced him to retire against Ernest Gulbis at the BNP Paribas Masters. The long year was now over and it was time for Mikhail Youzhny to go home to his wife, Julia, and young son, Maxim.
Outside the Pullman Hotel in Paris it is cold and raining when Sobkin and Youzhny load their tennis bags into the tournament courtesy car for the ride to Charles de Gaulle Airport and flight back to Moscow. These days, Boris walks with a slight stoop in his back and Mikhail takes a little longer to recover after matches than he used to do. But one thing that has not changed after nearly two decades of working together is the sparkle in Youzhny’s eyes and Boris’s steady hand on Mikhail’s shoulder.
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