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DMITRY TURSUNOV: FEAR AND LOATHING
As a perennial prankster and full-throttle on-court aggressor, Dmitry Tursunov is dismissed by some as a one-dimensional jock. Yet this Russian is as complex a character as you would find in a Dostoyevsky novel. He’s a honest and insightful thinker who recently made peace with his dying father after a lifetime of conflicting emotions.
Standing still with his blond curly hair, cobalt blue eyes and sculpted body,Dmitry Tursunov looks a bit like Michelangelo’s statue, David. Listen to the 28-year-old Russian talk for a few minutes and you might think that he has been reading Voltaire his whole life. One thing is for sure, renaissance model or modern-day philosopher, Tursunov is about as complex a character as you would expect to find in a Dostoyevsky novel. As countryman and former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov says, “He has an extremely unique personality.”
“There are days when I try to please everyone, and there are days when I know that I cannot please anyone,” claims Tursunov. “Maybe I am sarcastic and cynical because I am insecure about a lot of things. Making fun of people is a good way of deflecting stuff away from yourself.”
“When [your ranking] is taken away you feel like a race horse put out to pasture”
On the tennis court Tursunov is no less critical of himself. His moods can and do range from comical to hostile, lively to lethargic, passionate to resigned. And all that in just the first set.
“You go through life and you have certain experiences and people try to categorize you like they do books in a library,” says Tursunov. “I think people do that with players; whether you are a comedy, drama or whatever. Russians got categorized as unpredictable although we have had plenty of players that were predictable as machines.”
Speaking of predictions, more than a few players and coaches have predicted Tursunov to regain the form he had in 2006 when he reached a career-high South African Airways ATP Ranking of 20. From outside the Top 500 just on a year ago, Tursunov has rallied to No. 45, playing well enough to suggest that a return to the Top 20 is possible. That is, if he can stay healthy. And that is a big ‘IF’. Although he has captured seven ATP World Tour titles during his career, it seems that he has spent more time in injury rehab than on the tennis court. Now, fresh off his ATP World Tour 250 tournament win at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and two ATP Challengers (Singapore and Bath), Tursunov is quickly getting back up to speed.
“Over the last two years the only thing clicking was in my ankles,” Tursunov says. “As a tennis player, most of your life you believe that you are your ranking. And when that is taken away you feel like a race horse put out to pasture. There is a lot of psychological pressure you can put on yourself based on the result. If I win I am a good guy, and if I lose I am not? I win a tournament and a lot of players and people in the tennis industry will come up who have not spoken to me in months or even years, and say ‘Good job’ and shake my hand. And I am thinking, ‘Wow dude,’ I did not know that I existed to you.”
Tennis fans got a taste of Tursunov in 2006 when he contributed a series of blogs about daily life on the ATP World Tour. They were an instant hit both in the locker room and with the tournament organisers. Who would have imagined that Dmitry Tursunov could parody the trivial and the meaningful with equal ease?
“People try to categorise you like they do books in a library”
There is no doubt that Tursunov has had some issues with tennis. Being forced to sit out and ponder life after three ankle surgeries has seen him come to view the sport in a new light. “I enjoy tennis much more than I ever did in the past. I see things in a different perspective now,” Tursunov admits. “In order to get to the top of the mountain, you actually have to take the first step, the second step and third step to get there. When I was younger I did not want to take the beginning steps, I wanted to jump all the way up. In the beginning of my career, I didn’t really like the feeling of pressure you get when it is deuce and five all in the third set. When that point came I shied away from it, hoping my opponent would double fault. Right now in the same situation I don’t want the person to double fault. I want to make the return, start the point and figure out how to win it.”
Even to the casual observer, it’s obvious that Tursunov plays the power game. From serve to groundstrokes, his game is packed like a B52 bomber. He begins the point by blasting balls that whiz off his racquet like RPGs fired at close range. There is no mystery to the Tursunov tactics for they are quite simple: Hammer and hope. He knows that sooner or later he will get a short ball and when he does he moves in like a panther pouncing on its prey. One thing is for sure, if there is a weakness in the Tursunov hardware, it is surely not coming from his racquet.
“I might have critics who say that I am just an idiot who hits hard,” says Tursunov. “Before I was gambling and a lot went in and a lot went out. Now, I am being overcautious. But there is no way a coach can tell you when to pull the trigger or when not too. It is a bit like poker. You cannot really coach someone when to bluff and when not to bluff. You can always teach someone percentages, but there is a big part of the game where you cannot predict everything and you cannot count the odds because there is always the human factor involved. The best thing that you can do if you want to guarantee yourself some type of consistent results is to eliminate some crazy shots. But again at the end of the day you are always going to have some shot between the legs that goes for a winner.”
Vitaly Gorin has been Tursunov’s coach since the young Russian showed up at his California-based tennis academy at the age of 12. Though too young to be his father, Gorin is more like an older brother or mentor to Tursunov.
“When he arrived at the academy I was shocked at how hard he hit the ball,” says Gorin. “At 12 years old he was hitting harder than most US college players. Instantly, I knew he was special. Though at that young age he was already carrying some serious emotional baggage. Let’s just say that circumstances back home made him a bit closed off to people. Many young kids come to my academy and the first month are crying to go home. Not so with Dmitry.”
“What kid wants to eat carrots for breakfast every day so he can get Vitamin B to see the tennis ball better on the court?”
Though the Tursunov and Gorin team has always stayed together, there was a time that Jose Higueras was brought in to help the talented but stubborn Russian. “He (Higueras) definitely helped me a lot,” says Tursunov. “I think sometimes I was not in the right state of mind to receive what he was giving. He tried to rein me in and bring some order to my life. At the time I was a bit chaotic. It must have been frustrating for him to see. I had to go through that stage in order to get through the stage that I am at now. But he (Higueras) definitely had a positive effect on the way that I played.”
Tursunov is refreshingly honest. He is the first to concede what many tennis players are ashamed to admit: That he chokes. And the one last year in theSt. Petersburg Open semi-finals against Mikhail Youzhny hurt bad. Tursunov had the first of his three match points up a break at 6-5 in the final set when Youzhny scrambled off the court and floated a ball back that landed smack in the middle of the court. Tursunov netted a backhand.
“It was definitely an easy shot if you look at it from the fact that Youzhny was outside the court and I only needed to put the ball in play and the match was over,” admits Tursunov. “I thought about it a little too much. Instead of just hitting the ball you are so conscious of all the options: Should I do this? Should I do that? Should I hit it cross court, deep, angle, spin or flat? When I was at my best I was playing more instinctively. The older you get the more you start to choke, because you start to realise how much one point can affect a match.”
“With every match your career is getting closer to the end,” says Kafelnikov. “And in Dmitry’s case, unfortunately he has been injured a lot and most likely every time he steps out on the court he is putting so much pressure on himself to win.”
“Even when [my father] was in the hospital he was trying to tell me how I should convert more break points”
As much as Tursunov talks about choking, you would think that he has never held his nerve. You would be wrong. It was the Davis Cup semi-finals between Russia and the United States, Russia was leading 2-1 and Tursunov was asked to sub for Youzhny against Andy Roddick. The Olympic Stadium in Moscow was packed to the rafters. If Tursunov was going to choke, now would be the time to do it. When it was all said and done, he prevailed 17-15 in four hours and 38 minutes, sending Russia into the final.
In Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina, the first sentence reads, “All happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy could not have been talking about tennis families then, but what he meant definitely applies to those on the tennis tour now: Dominant tennis father drives talented child to the edge and beyond is not new concept to tennis.
“Growing up I remember that I did not have any memories other than tennis,” Tursunov recalls. “There was nothing else in my life besides tennis because my dad was the driving force behind it. I was going to play tennis one way or another and the biggest pressure was that I had to make it. I guess I had to take tennis as my profession without really wanting to do it. When I was little my father and I were always fighting and I would run away and he would say later, ‘One day you will thank me for all this’. And I kept thinking to myself, ‘No way will I ever forgive you, much less thank you.’ What kid wants to eat carrots for breakfast every day so he can get Vitamin B to see the tennis ball better on the court? Or do these crazy Army drills on the court?”
“I left for the States when I was 12 years old,” Tursunov continues. “My father and I have not spent that much time together since then. I knew that I had to do well in the States, or I would have to go back to Russia and train and I did not want to do that. I was not enjoying it because I was doing it for someone else. I thought a lot of it was pointless.
“My dad is much calmer than before. He probably feels that he did his job and that I can take care of the family if I need too. If I won Wimbledon I might be better off financially and more people might respect me as a tennis player, but at the end of the day I don’t think you judge your loved ones by their results, and yes, I think that was an obsession of his. His whole life revolved around my tennis. Now he is at the age of his life where he realises that there are more important things.”
Like dealing with the terminal case of pancreatic cancer. The news that his father had six months to live came to Dmitry Tursunov in an email on November 29, 2010. “Tennis was tearing us apart more than keeping us together,” admits Tursunov. “So, I tried to avoid talking to him about tennis. But even when he was in the hospital he was trying to tell me how I should convert more break points.”
“I might have critics who say that I am just an idiot who hits hard”
Three weeks after Tursunov won ‘s-Hertogenbosch, his father, Igor, died.
“When he was dying the one thing that kept going through my mind was that I was actually very thankful to him for all the he did,” says Tursunov. “In the end he felt that I understood that he was trying to do the best he could for me at the time. And now I realise that he did the best with what he had. And I do thank my father for what he did for me.”
“Could I have done things differently throughout my career?” asks Tursunov. “Maybe I should have done a lot differently. I don’t know. What I do know is that for me tennis has been a journey and everyone takes a different route. And the knowledge that you get along the way stays with you longer than the disappointments.”