The Tennis Curmudgeon

The Next Phenom – Part 3

Part 3: Jherkinov and the Soviet Tennis Federation

Look at this list of men’s tennis players in the early 1980’s:

Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Ashe, Agassi, Arias, Gueralitis, Gilbert, and others.

They were all products of the good old tennis camps, private instructors, etc…

Look at this list of Russian players:

Nikolai Davydenko, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, Mikhail Youhnzy, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetzova, Dinara Safina, Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva.

What do they all have in common? None of them went through the Soviet Tennis Federation or academy. They came of age in an era after glasnost and perestroika. Sergei Jherkinov, he came up in a time of Cold War tensions.

Remember Natalya Zvereva? She was the first Russian tennis player, nay, athlete to tell the old Soviet sports federation to demand that she keep her tournament winnings circa 1989? Roughly $500,000 of her professional earnings were taken by the Soviet federation. And then she fought back and signed with ProServ and the system crumbled. Jhernkinov didn’t have that luxury of a crumbling tennis federation and a wide open world for its athletes.

So, given this backdrop, Sergei told me that eventually his father pushed him into the federation’s tennis academy at the age of eight. For his age group, Sergei was surprisingly solid in his form and technique. Being forced to practice with the rapid firing ball machine his father aimed at him on the practice courts had honed the young Sergei’s skills to react, that it was second nature. His backhand and forehand shots up the line were impeccably accurate, according to Ilya Kostitsin, a former coach and official with the tennis federation back then. Kostitsin now runs a private tennis academy with his wife and children in Uzbekistan.

In a telephone interview, Kostitsin said Jherkinov was the most talented in the group and showed the greatest potential. He had a calmness about him, like Federer, he said. Imagine that in an eight year old! Even facing the older students, Sergei never exhibited any nervousness or fear on the court. He was never out of position, his footwork impeccable. In fact, he continued, the only player he had trouble with was Yuri Stroginov. For whatever reason, Stroginov’s game gave Jherkinov the hardest time. Like David Nalbandian or Rafa Nadal against Federer.

And then, I heard some rustling over the phone and Kostitsin arguing with someone. Suddenly, I heard Kostitsin’s wife, Iroda, in thick accented English proclaim, “Jherkinov was such a sensitive boy! Don’t let that calmness fool you. Inside, he hurt! His father was very aggressive with us and we had to try and protect Sergei from taking on too much.” I heard Ilya yelling in the background and then the phone went dead. We tried calling back but we just got a busy signal.

I asked Sergei about his time at the academy over some more drinks in the concession area. He looked a little glum and sighed, “it wasn’t a very good time. I wanted to play hockey with my brother Antonin. But what could I do? My mother tried to give me option to do hockey but she was busy with the Olympic development league for women’s soccer and so my father pushed me into it.”

Is it true that you were hurting inside, I asked him.

“Yes, very much so. I was away from home and my friends and family. What eight year old wanted to pick up and move to a tennis camp and practice all day?”

I had to ask him what Iroda had told me. Was it true that he was sensitive but just covering it up with his stoicism?

“What choice do you have? I didn’t want to let on I was homesick to the others. It is very competitive in the academy and cliques form and kids are not always so kind to one another. Everybody looking for weakness. I knew right away not to show feelings, to show I was angry or sad. Whatever.”

Yet, tennis camp was essentially no different than any place else, he explained. Lots of drills, conditioning, and then some schoolwork. We paused for a bit and both of us sat there in the silence watching the crowd around the concession stands. Then I asked him about Stroginov and his head snapped up.

“Stroginov?!!” he hissed, looking at me with cold steely eyes. Gone was the sadness that was usually around his eyes.

“Yeah, Yuri Stroginov. I heard from Ilya and Iroda that he was the only one to give you trouble?”

He sat there, just glowering at me. For a very long time.

NEXT: Yuri Stroginov


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