Love & Life in the Finnish Fast Lane
Roland Garros 2008
by Paul Macpherson|
Jarkko and Anu Nieminen are both Finnish No. 1s. Traveling alone for most of the year, how do they juggle their marriage and careers? And why does Anu say that tennis players would never survive on the badminton tour?
Imagine a world in which tennis players pay for their own practice balls, water during matches and an entry fee to compete. A world where prize money starts at the semifinals or final, trainers are non-existent at smaller tournaments and locker rooms are considered a bonus.
A world without a players' restaurant - let alone any complimentary food - and a world where an empty room with one chair constitutes the players' lounge.
Welcome the world of Anu Nieminen, Finland's No. 1 badminton player of the past 13 years and wife of Finland's No. 1 tennis player since 2000, Jarkko Nieminen.
Joining Jarkko for a lunch of chicken, pasta and fruit in the spacious, well-appointed marquee at the picturesque Barcelona-1899 Club during April's Barcelona ATP event, Anu could be forgiven for contemplating whether she chose the right sport.
"If the tennis players tried the badminton tour for a week, I don't think they'd consider switching careers," she says.
It's springtime in Barcelona and, for Anu, all is good in the world right now as she enjoys a rare week in the company of her husband. The Nieminens, who first met at an event for a joint sponsor, were married on June 11, 2005, but have never celebrated their wedding anniversary together as they follow their respective schedules. ("We celebrate our anniversary when we see each other," Anu says.)
Instead, there is a heavy reliance on technology to monitor one another's results (via live scores on the internet) and to communicate either by text messaging, Skype or telephone. And Jarkko has learned to steel himself before checking the bill.
"We've had some big phone bills over the years, but you have to do it if you are in this type of relationship," he says. "It's not worth trying to save a few dollars by not talking to each other for a few days." The Nieminens burst into laughter when asked if they've ever had one phone call cost in excess of $100. "One hundred is nothing," Jarkko says. "I can't tell you. But the biggest bill was a lot more.
"I miss her more when I'm at a tournament and she's at home, or if I'm alone at home and she's travelling. It's much easier if we're competing at the same time."
And even easier if they are competing in the same place at the same time, which will happen for just the third time in their careers at the Beijing Olympics in September. Sure, it's a chance to be part of the biggest sporting showcase on the planet, but for Anu there are also simple pleasures to be enjoyed.
"It's two weeks together," she beams. "That's always special."
Jarkko adds: "Other than the Athens Olympics in 2004, we've only played at the same time in the same place once before - last year in Paris. In Athens we stayed in the same room even though we were only engaged, so it should be even easier to be allowed to stay together in Beijing."
In most countries, a love match between two of the nation's most celebrated athletes would send media outlets into frenzy and elevate the couple to lifelong celebrity status. But not so with the down-to-earth Finns. The Nieminens don't shun the media and agree to their share of interviews. But they are not regulars on the cover of tabloid magazines and the interview requests they field are generally of an individual nature and focused on sports.
"Finns are pretty low key… we don't have the paparazzi," Anu says. "And we don't do many interviews together." Jarkko adds: "The stories are normally about sport. We don't show our home in photo spreads or talk about our plans for kids."
With a similar personality to her humble and softly spoken husband, who is known as 'the Friendly Finn,' it's hard to imagine Anu becoming combative in any interview situation. But pity the Finnish reporters who brazenly enquire whether Jarkko holds his own against Anu on the badminton court. Or worse still, whether Jarkko wins.
"It's rude! No-one asks me if I can beat him in tennis," Anu bristles, albeit it with a smile. "I don't know why these Finnish sports journalists assume that when we play it's a tight game or he could have a chance of beating me. Just because it's a racquet sport doesn't mean that he could even get a point out of me. I don't want to sound arrogant, but that's the way it is."
So would Anu beat Jarkko 21-0? "Yes," she says with a giggle. Jarkko? "If you don't count lucky points that hit the net, yes, she would. And that's even though I would say I am better than average because I play good tennis. And when I played badminton at school I didn't lose a point against anyone. "
Not that Jarkko thinks he made a mistake by choosing tennis over badminton. During the season that she achieved her career-high ranking of No. 13, Anu's prize money didn't cover expenses. When Jarkko reached his career-high mark (also No. 13) in 2006, he earned almost $900,000. His career haul stands at more than $3.6 million.
Currently ranked No. 38, Anu played more than 20 tournaments in Asia and Europe last year. Her expenses were high and her earnings were, well… not terribly memorable. "My prize money in total? I have no clue whatsoever."
"They don't put those statistics out!" Jarkko chimes in. "I don't think they want to draw attention to it."
"Oh, last year my prize money was far from covering my expenses," Anu says. "I am minus something. When you get $600 for reaching the second round of a Super Series event but you have the cost of an airfare to Asia and a hotel for two weeks, the prize money is nothing. I am a bit of an exception, though. Most of the players are part of a national team and they have their costs paid for. But Finland is a small badminton country where we don't have that type of system."
Badminton's premier events, the 12 Super Series tournaments, are encouraged - not mandated - to have a players' lounge. And then there are the smaller events. "In Indonesia there was a sign saying players' lounge," Anu says. "I looked at this room in the badminton hall with one chair inside in the middle of the room. And that was the players' lounge! No food. Normally we have to get our own water if we want to drink something during the matches.
"At the big tournaments we are given one or two shuttles," Anu continues. "But you're lucky if you can play 10 rallies with one and then they charge you extra for more. So it's better if you bring them from home.
"They do pick us up from the airport but you can never be sure that they will be there. Hotels we have to pay ourselves, and I've stayed in some pretty bad ones. We have to pay entry fees at some of the tournaments and we don't get any prize money unless we get to the semifinals or final."
Jarkko, I'm not sure you should be laughing right now. Particularly given that we're sitting in the lobby of the comfortable Melia Barcelona, where your 200 Euro a night room is paid for by the tournament.
But progress is being made. A rule introduced last year guarantees that first-round losers at the elite Super Series events take home $US300 (assuming players have enough money for a ticket home). "At least that's enough to buy your water and shuttles for practice," Anu says.
"It's amazing how things are in badminton," Jarkko reflects "They too are the best in the world at what they do and the product is very entertaining."
Jarkko spent even less precious time with Anu at the end of last season. The Monday after his final tournament at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, the 26-year-old reported to the Finnish Army for six weeks of compulsory military service. [He was allowed home at weekends to practise.]
"As a rifleman I was quite good, not the best, but not bad. I got to shoot with many different guns, including a bazooka. The only thing I didn't do was throw a live grenade, because there was an accident two or three years ago.
"I took it as a life experience. I was treated like everybody else and it was nice to be just a normal guy. You didn't have to think about anything or everyday problems. They tell you when to eat, when to go to the practice range to shoot - you just do what you are told.
"There were times when it wasn't fun, like sleeping out without shelter and packing your pack in darkness in the early morning when it's really cold. But mentally I really enjoyed it. It was a totally different world - it was like a mental holiday. You think about tennis 10 months a year and when I'm home in Finland people want to talk tennis. They think of me as Jarkko the tennis player, not like Jarkko a normal person."
Psychological benefits aside, spending six weeks in military service while your fellow players are either recuperating or practising for the 2008 season hardly seems like ideal preparation. Yet Nieminen began this year by making the Adelaide final in the first week of the season and two weeks later he reached the Australian Open quarterfinals.
After Melbourne he returned for a final week of training with the army. "I was in the forest for a little while. I was on guard duty one night with one other guy and there was a fake surprise attack. It was four o'clock in the morning in total darkness. But we took care of business. We didn't shoot him, but we took him prisoner."
"I wasn't happy with the Finnish army because it was time we would normally get to spend together," Anu laughs. "But I'm really proud of him for doing it, because it's not easy."
Unfortunately, Nieminen's form deserted him upon his return to the circuit second time around. He lost six consecutive first-round matches between Rotterdam and Estoril and won just two of 12 matches in all through Masters Series Hamburg. The left-hander did recently hire Swede Joakim Nystrom and is confident that the former Swedish No. 7 can engineer a turnaround in his game.
"The last three seasons had been my best years but I felt it would be tough to keep improving just on my own. I need some extra help and I feel I have a lot of potential left in my game. Nystrom was the No. 1 option for me."
And of course, he can count on the support of Anu to see him through any on-court downturn.
"Having Anu has made it very easy for me to make a career in tennis. As a professional badminton player she understands what it's like to be at the top level of sport. I never have to explain my feelings about tennis. And while I can't tell her how to hit a smash or she can't tell me how to hit a backhand, we can talk about many mental aspects of our sports."
And while Jarkko is now fighting to not slip out of the Top 30 for the first time since October 2005, even in tough times tennis sure beats guard duty at 4 a.m. Or the badminton tour in good times.
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