Friday, September 23, 2011

Tursunov no longer faults father

Dmitry Tursunov, middle, poses with fellow Moscow natives Mischa Zverev,
left, and Igor Andreev at the 2012 Aptos, Calif., Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Igor Tursunov was obsessed.
   His only goal in life was for his son Dmitry to become a professional tennis player.
   If that meant forcing Dmitry to train five or six hours a day and eat healthy foods as a child in Moscow, too bad. If that meant belting Dmitry when he resisted, tough. If that meant sending Dmitry to live in the United States at 12, so be it.
   "He trained under a lot of duress from 6 to 12," said Vitaly Gorin, Dmitry's coach since the player was 12 and his former legal guardian in California. "Spending time with his father and (older) brother turned into a job, a profession he didn't sign up for. His father recognized his ability and pushed him hard."
   For many years, Dmitry resented his rigid upbringing. But then a funny thing happened. He grew up. Now 28, Dmitry adamantly defends his father.
   "When he was chasing me around during practice — half the time I was running away — he was saying I'll thank him later," said Dmitry, a Sacramento-area resident since 2000 who won the deciding Davis Cup match for host Russia against Brazil on Sunday. "I never believed it for a second, but in the end, he was right. He tried to get the result with whatever means he could."
   Igor Tursunov, a former nuclear engineer who played tennis recreationally, died of pancreatic cancer July 13 at 59 years old. That's the life expectancy for Russian men. The corresponding figure in the United States is 75.
   "I don't know many people who would be able to sacrifice their entire life for a child's potential career," Dmitry said. "I understand he was living vicariously through me. Maybe he was oppressed when he was younger. In the end, he achieved what he wanted."
   Mark Knowles, formerly ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles, has observed Tursunov on the ATP World Tour and played with him on the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis in 2004. Five years ago, when Tursunov was ranked No. 26 in the world, Knowles told The Sacramento Bee: "He's a top-10 player for sure, maybe top five. The first time I saw him (in 2001), I thought he was a great player. He hits the ball as clean as anyone off both sides, he has a lot of power, and he serves big. He moves well and is a great athlete.
   "The only thing that has held him back is the mental side. He needs to develop points and use his strength better. He has a tendency to overhit, which is normal for a guy with that much power. It's hard to know when to pull the trigger and when to harness your power."
   Tursunov, who also has been plagued by injuries, hasn't quite reached the top 10. Still, as renowned coach and commentator Brad Gilbert said of his friend and former pupil, "He's done pretty well for himself."
   Ideally built at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Tursunov has won seven singles titles on the ATP World Tour, reached a career-high No. 20 in 2006 and amassed $3.93 million in prize money. He has advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon twice, narrowly missing the quarterfinals in 2006.
   Tursunov played the two signature matches of his career on Russia's 2006 Davis Cup championship team. He clinched a quarterfinal victory over France by defeating Richard Gasquet 7-5 in the fifth set before a hostile indoor crowd in Pau, France. Improbably, Tursunov topped that by outlasting Andy Roddick 17-15 in the fifth set in four hours, 48 minutes on clay, the worst surface for both players, in Moscow to clinch a semifinal win over the United States.            
   Tursunov also is accomplished in doubles with five career ATP titles and a career-high ranking of No. 36 in 2008. He reached the French Open semifinals in 2008 and quarterfinals in 2007 and 2009, all with Igor Kunitsyn of Russia.
   Tursunov was coming back from three operations within one year — for bone spurs in his left ankle, a bone chip in the ankle and nerve inflammation and a cyst in his left foot — when his father was diagnosed last November. Ranked No. 516 in July 2010, Tursunov has climbed back to No. 41. He won a Wimbledon tuneup tournament on grass in the Netherlands in June for his first ATP World Tour singles title in two years.
   "It's been a very interesting last six months for Dmitry," Gorin said last month at his tennis academy in Granite Bay, a Sacramento suburb, while watching Tursunov hit with fellow pro Jimmy Wang of Taiwan. "Outside of match play, he didn't train at all. He's hitting really well for as little training as he did. He was just going from home (in Moscow) to the hospital."
   Tursunov's lack of training caught up with him, though, on the summer hardcourt circuit. Also dealing with girlfriend issues and hassles with the homeowners' association that governs his two-bedroom Folsom townhouse, he went 1-4 in singles and 0-2 in doubles. Tursunov lost in the first round of singles and men's doubles at the U.S. Open. He did not play mixed doubles.
   "I feel like I'm constantly emptying water out of a lifeboat with no time to paddle," Tursunov said in a long, candid interview at the academy.
   Tursunov is a complex person: part Russian, part American, part pro tennis player, part comedian and part philosopher. With his curly, blond hair, blue eyes and impeccable, accent-less English, he easily could be mistaken for a Southern California surfer. In fact, Tursunov's countrymen call him "Surfer Dude" because of his California residence. Never mind that Sacramento is 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean. 
   Tursunov became the talk of the tour as the ATP's resident blogger in 2006 but gave it up because it took too much time. He remains as irreverent and self-deprecating as ever, though, as shown in his recent "bag check" video for Wilson Sporting Goods. Some highlights on YouTube:
   --On his tournament accreditation badge depicting a big letter "L": " 'L' for loser, I guess."
   --On a callous on his hand: "I'm single, so ... "
   --While flipping through a few bills in his wallet: "That's all my prize money for this year."
   Tursunov seems utterly without pretense and is very considerate. He is extremely accommodating with reporters and helps junior players and even other pros.
   Wang, for example, launched a comeback last November after two operations on his right (playing) wrist. Tursunov is the master of comebacks, having also suffered stress fractures in his left foot and ankle, two broken vertebrae and a re-fractured vertebra early in his career.   
   The 26-year-old Wang, a former top-100 player, said of Tursunov's guidance: "It's been very fortunate. I've stayed at his place the last 12 months. I was out for three years and had no idea how to get back in the right way. Experience-wise, he has helped me a lot, not just on the court but off."
   South African Rik de Voest,  in an interview with The Bee last October, described Tursunov as "a character with a very dry sense of humor." They had some unusual on-court conversations while winning the doubles title in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, two years ago, de Voest said.
  The pair discussed "everything but tennis ... the people in the crowd, what was going on in Dubai, where we were playing next and Dmitry's one-liners that would keep me laughing and relaxed," said de Voest, the singles champion of the inaugural Sacramento Challenger in 2005.     
   It figures that Tursunov would want to take his mind off tennis. His father never wanted to talk about anything but Dmitry's tennis. 
   When asked why Igor loved tennis, Dmitry said only that his father played at a court where he worked.
   "We never talked about it much or anything except (my) tennis, to be honest," Dmitry recalled. "That's why we had so much friction between (ages) 9 and 23. Everything was always tennis. If I was playing well, everything was peachy. If not, it was a world crisis. At 17, 18, 19, I got fed up with it. I started seeing my life in my results."
   Tursunov said he "blew a gasket a couple of times" when he was about 20.
   "I told my dad, 'If you don't want to talk about anything except tennis, let's not talk,' but in rougher terms. He was losing whatever connection he had with me. He started to mellow out the last five or six years, and we were able to talk about different stuff," Tursunov related.
   It wasn't quite that simple, though.
   "After I put the ultimatum down, he still went through the back door," Tursunov continued. "He'd ask, 'How's your girlfriend?' but he would always come back to tennis. I told him, 'I'm not that stupid.' He had no other passion. I became more lenient as long as we didn't only talk about tennis."
   An obvious comparison is with Andre Agassi and his fanatical father, Mike.
   "In the last couple years of his career, Agassi told me his father still called him to say he was using the wrong racket," said Tursunov, who sometimes hit with Agassi when Gilbert was coaching the legend. "You're never going to change the person, but my dad (eventually) understood there was more to life than tennis. He would love for me to be No. 1, but it was more important to have a connection with me than never have a conversation."  
   Igor was highly educated, but all it got him was a low-paying job as a nuclear engineer. He eventually quit to sell tennis rackets with Dmitry's only sibling, Dennis.
   "(Igor's) salary was not even enough to pay for (tennis) equipment," Dmitry said. "You also have to pay for courts and travel."
   But Dmitry was going to become a pro, one way or another.
   "I had a regimen," he recalled. "There was a lot of practice. If I didn't want to practice, he'd chase me around and beat me up. There were fights all the time. I did pushups, weights and squats."
    Igor also put Dmitry on a diet of healthy foods such as carrots (for better vision), walnuts, raisins, sour cream and cottage cheese (for calcium) and honey.
   "I was forced to eat it all," Dmitry growled.
   Only when discussing his regimen did Tursunov display any bitterness.
   "Every morning, you know you have to eat the god-damned cottage cheese and shaved carrots and work out," he snarled. "I hate routines and always have."
   Tursunov then turned philosophical again when discussing his father.
   "He did in a sense take away my childhood and force me to do things, but all kids are forced to go to school instead of playing on the monkey bars, eating candy and dissecting worms," he said. "Now, I get (paid for working out and playing tennis), but back then, I didn't get a new bike. I just got more work."
   Tursunov described his mother, Svetlana, as "very strong emotionally. She let me go (to the United States) at 12 1/2 and didn't see me (much) for nine years. She can handle a lot. She handled it well after my dad died."
   Tursunov admitted that he doesn't "know what I would do as a parent. If you provide everything, the child won't be able to solve problems and rise to challenges. In the end, you have to struggle to achieve something. If it's a gift, you haven't really succeeded. It's given to you.
   "I remember my first phone, sneakers and pair of jeans in the States. I don't know how many kids remember those things. They come so easy."
   Many kids at Gorin's academy, where Tursunov trains, lack the perseverance that Igor drilled into Dmitry, the tennis star lamented.
    "Some are happy to be in the setting, and others in the same situation feel shortchanged. It comes from background. I see a lot of kids stop short when the going gets tough. That's a big aspect of the sport -- how you get through challenges. Rafa (Rafael Nadal) will walk on burning coal to win a match. Others will give up just thinking about that. Sport brings out the best and worst in people."
   Tursunov took a swipe at American society when asked if he was physically abused as a child.
   "Yeah, I've gotten hit. My mom hit me with a wet dish rag across the face when I said something impolite. I didn't go to the school counselor, I didn't file for abuse, and I didn't go to a foster home.
   "If I didn't get hit by my mom or dad, I would get (figuratively) hit today. I think I'd rather get (physically) hit a couple of times."
   Economics dictated that Tursunov leave Moscow at 12 to fulfill his potential. Gorin's father had become acquainted with Tursunov through a distant cousin of Vitaly's who was a friend of the head of the Russian national junior team. Igor learned that Vitaly had attended legendary Australian coach Harry Hopman's academy in Florida and was convinced.
   "He idolized Hopman," said Vitaly, a 41-year-old Ukraine native who moved to the United States at 9.
   Igor took Dmitry to live and train with Gorin, who was living in Los Altos in the San Francisco area.
   "Tennis is so much more expensive in Russia," explained Gorin, who bought the Granite Bay Tennis Club in 2000 and converted it into an academy. "(Igor) was killing three birds with one stone. I had gone to the Hopman academy, tennis cost less in America, and (Dmitry) was getting involved with a family (the Gorins) capable of sponsoring him."       
   Tursunov, who spoke no English at the time, was hardly traumatized by the move.
   "When I was left to myself, it was a breath of fresh air," he conceded. "No one was standing over my head and forcing me to do stuff. I was still motivated to practice hard. If I didn't, I would have gone back to Moscow. I still realized everything was about tennis and I was supposed to become a pro by 17 or 18."
   At that point, Gilbert saw Tursunov play for the first time.
   "He didn't have a lot of confidence in his game," said Gilbert, who also has coached Andy Roddick and Andy Murray and currently works with promising Kei Nishikori of Japan. "I told him, 'For sure, you're going to be a good pro.' He was ranked about 500 at the time. Sometimes he can be self-deprecating. He said, 'Everyone says that.' But I'm not everyone."
   Tursunov, who has a friend in Mill Valley in the San Francisco area, often practices at Gilbert's house in nearby San Rafael.
  "I don't coach him (anymore), per se," said the 50-year-old Gilbert, who was born in Oakland, grew up in Piedmont and played at Foothill College in Los Altos before transferring to Pepperdine. "I like him a lot and encourage him. I root for him because he's been the best player from Northern California for a long time, and his coach went to Foothill."
    Like Agassi, Tursunov said he hated tennis for much of his life. And now?
   "I enjoy it quite a bit," he admitted. "I started enjoying it a whole lot more (in the past few years) without the pressure of having to prove myself to someone. I realized I'm the only one I have to impress."
   Why the change?
   "I started maturing," Tursunov said. "Definitely working with Brad helped me. He's very focused on being positive and complimenting yourself. ...
   "My potential is higher than my results, but I'm happy with my effort. I'm doing my best and learning. I enjoy the challenge. I'm not afraid to fail. I failed before, and I'm still alive."
   Tursunov plays more conservatively, reining in his power, but feels more internal pressure as he nears the end of his career.
   "I understand that one point can sway a match quite a bit," he explained. "I choke a little more. Everybody chokes. The more it means to you, the more you choke."
   Tursunov will turn 29 in December. One source of inspiration is American Mardy Fish, who's ranked a career-high No. 7 at 29. But few players excel once they hit 30. 
   "I definitely value the time I have left," he said. "I know I don't have the rest of my life to play tennis. I'd like to play the way I know I'm capable of playing. I have to figure out a way to focus on tennis."
   That was never a problem when Igor was hovering over Dmitry, who grew to appreciate his father's efforts.
  "It's very easy to criticize but hard to point out how to make it better," Dmitry said. "He was navigating unknown waters. He might have made a lot of mistakes, but there's no right or wrong way. I've gone through a bigger journey than most pro tennis players."
   In the end, Dmitry did not expressly thank his father. It wasn't necessary.
   "I'm not very good at being emotional," Dmitry said. "I think he understood (my gratitude), though. He would come out to practice and watch. He seemed content. He seemed happy with what he accomplished in life. There's no way he could have come to the tennis court, which split us apart for so long, and watched quietly if he wasn't content."


  1. Thank you very much, very interesting... I grow two boys tennis players and I'm Russian....

    1. Andrey,

      Thank you for reading my story and commenting on it. I wish your boys much success.

      My daughter just returned from three months in Moscow, where she was studying drama.


    2. Fascinating story, someone just linked to it on Twitter. Great read, love hearing what makes players tick and when they gain perspective on life with years of experience.

    3. Thank you for reading and for the kind words.

  2. Wow! Great story! Stuff that I didn’t know. Vitaly is a bright and interesting gentleman in real life as well. He gets so animated and excited whenever I chat with him about tennis techniques or strategies. He’s academies are going strong as well, and have formal professional and college players as instructors.