Monday, March 05, 2007

Warning: a long tennis post ahead :)))

This piece in the New York Times caught me unawares - How to Grow a Super Athlete, by Daniel Coyle.

I saw Yelena Dementieva's picture on the coverpage, next to the article's title, and immediately began thinking about a story of one of Mishah's colleagues: how her daughter and Dementieva had the same tennis coach when they were little, and Dementieva was deemed absolutely no good, while the daughter of Mishah's colleague was considered really promising - but in the end, it was Dementieva who managed to beat them all big time.

Then I opened the story, scrolled down, and saw this photo (by Olaf Blecker):

Larisa Dmitrievna Preobrazhenskaya, she was my coach here in 1986-87, when I lived in Moscow with my mama after Chernobyl.

Bumping into her like this so many years later is strange - and very moving.

The coach, 77-year-old Larisa Preobrazhenskaya (pronounced pray-oh-brah-ZHEN-skya), stood at the sideline, watching. She wore a red-and-white tracksuit and a knowing, amused expression. Preobrazhenskaya was Spartak's most renowned youth coach, but she wore her authority lightly, radiating a grandmotherly twinkle behind hooded eyes. She'd been quite a player in her day, the 1955 Soviet singles champion. She still looked athletic, sauntering around the court with a John Wayne limp caused by a sore hip. The parents huddled by the door, watchful and silent.

She has aged so much. And so has my father. How heartbreaking. She's three years his senior.


If Preobrazhenskaya's approach were boiled down to one word (and it frequently was), that word would be tekhnika — technique.

Papa made it possible for me to be her student that year - it was an honor, even then. But when I returned to Kyiv, he was displeased with the way my serve had changed, and he blamed it on Preobrazhenskaya: her "swing your arms up, like wings" approach wasn't his idea of good tekhnika.

A few years ago, at a press conference, Dementieva, teary-eyed, blamed her serve for the defeat at some tournament.


To put Spartak's success in talent-map terms: this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women's rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven.

Back in the 1980s, there was a very talented junior player, Natasha Biletskaya, from Novaya Kakhovka, a small Ukrainian town that we used to teasingly call "New Kakhovka." There, they didn't have a single indoor court at all, and all winter long she used to play against the wall - and then, she kicked everyone's asses at most tournaments.


About the translator accompanying the author of the article in Moscow, and about the tennis center where Preobrazhenskaya works:

"I learned my English listening to music, like Elton John," she said. "'Crocodile Rocks'! I love it!"

We rode the subway half an hour northeast to Sokolniki Park and started walking. And walking. Sokolniki is almost twice the size of Central Park, considerably less central and only vaguely parklike. It's basically a huge forest of birch and elm trees filled with a disconcertingly energetic population of stray dogs. [...]

Oh, man, this is so familiar. The way I learned English, but also how I became immune to Moscow: I was 12, and several days a week, after school, I had to take a bus to Universitet subway station, then ride all the way up to Sokolniki, walk to the tennis center there (no stray dogs then, though), play for a couple hours, then go back home and do my homework. After Kyiv, where everything was so close, this was such a feat, and so exhausting. But I'm grateful I had to go through this: Moscow doesn't seem like such a nightmare now.


[...] a Slavic gene pool that produces a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tall, fast, strong kids [...]

Funny, but the only one of Preobrazhenskaya's really successful students who I played next to that year was Tatyana Panova, two years my junior, height 5' 3/4'' (1.54 m), weight 115 lbs. (52 kg). Watching her play against Lindsay Davenport - height 6' 2 1/2'' (1.89 m), weight 175 lbs. (79 kg) - was very, very, very scary. Just imagine: Davenport is 35 cm taller.


[...] the economic and cultural gateway that opened with the 1991 collapse of the Communist government [...]

Somehow, this was when I quit tennis. I was lazy and liked to cheat my way out of much of the work, and it was easy with my extremely kind papa, so it wasn't like I was going to become a star anyway, but I also remember my mama telling her friends that she wasn't going to torture her child as long as all the prize money went into the pockets of the bureaucrats at Sportkomitet.


[...] the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's enthusiastic (if at times klutzy) love for the sport [...]

Yes, he could spend six hours in row watching every single Russian player, with only one bathroom break. Amazing.


About Dementieva:

Surprisingly, she had been rejected by several other clubs as too slow before landing at Spartak. She spoke fondly, if a little vaguely, of her days at the club: dodging stray dogs, washing dirty tennis balls in the sink, doing homework on the long subway ride.

She was 5 years old when I was suffering through my subway rides to Sokolniki...


Driven Parents. The hunger and ambition of Russian parents is uniquely strong, particularly when one considers how hard life is in Russia right now and also that the patron saint of Russian tennis parents is the ex-Siberian oil-field worker Yuri Sharapov, who came to America with less than $1,000 and his 7-year-old daughter, Maria, who now earns an estimated $30 million a year in endorsements.

I'm so happy for Sharapova. I read somewhere that she spent the first two years in the States without her mother - because they wouldn't give her an entry visa to join her daughter. And now she's an absolutely free person - doesn't owe anything to Russia and doesn't have to worry about visas.


After all, at Spartak, they don't speak of "playing" tennis. The verb they like to use is borot'sya — to struggle.

My papa's way to describe some of my opponents was zubastaya - the one with the teeth. It was making me jealous, I guess, but then it was also pushing me to try growing the teeth of my own. He also used to tell us to "play our own game" - igray v svoyu igru - to avoid being manipulated by your opponent, and, as trite as it sounds, it's a good thing to remember in everyday life, too.


I've skipped most of the article - everything not related to Preobrazhenskaya. Will have to return to it later.


  1. Great post! I've been wondering when you were going to get around to talking about tennis! :)

  2. This was really fun - thanks! It brings back a lot of memories of my ex, who went through the Romanian junior system at about the same time. She, too, hit against the wall all winter, etc., and her family finally made the move to get her and her brother out and to the west through considerable hardship. Do you ever play now?

  3. Sounds positively nostalgic. NY Times put out a very sincere pic of your coach

  4. Great topic, I had read this article on the NYT last week. I hadn't realized you were such a well-schooled tennis player! I might have to pick your brain the next time I write on the topic.