The Tennis Curmudgeon


The Phenom, Part 5 : As Promised, Yuri Stroganov

It all started back in the old Soviet Tennis Federation academy where the young Jerkhinov was rapidly ascending in his skill level. Great form, properly balanced, fluid and smooth technique, always in good position, according to one of his old coaches, Ilya Kostitsin.

In one of the “ten and under” brackets an 8 year old Jerkhinov was eliminating his other academy mates in competition. Of course, this was noticed by the federation officials responsible for cultivating the ones with pure, raw, innate talent. All of it meant “up and coming star” treatment by the staff, but the expectations were obviously higher. The pressure was higher, especially when Jerkhinov’s father was in attendance to watch, but the young Jerkhinov was given lots of praise by the federation staff that his father never doled out.

According to sources who worked in the former federation, it is believed the conflict that haunts Sergei began with one of those “ten and under” evaluation competitions. Sergei was 8 years old during one of these evaluation match ups, going against another promising up and coming star, Yuri Stroginov, from Uzbek, now Uzbekistan, who was ten years old at the time. It was clear that the younger Sergei’s talent level was much greater than Yuri’s, yet Yuri managed to take the first set 6-4. This didn’t sit too well with the elder Jerkhinov, according to sources who were there overseeing the evaluations. The elder Jerkhinov began yelling and screaming at Sergei that he would be a failure and a huge disappointment to him if he didn’t beat this Central Asian mongol from Uzbek.

The younger Sergei came back to shut out Yuri in the second set, 6-0. Early in the third set, it appeared that Yuri twisted his ankle. So Sergei decided to make Yuri run, drop shotting him. However, Yuri seemed capable enough to rush in and take the short balls and smash them for winners. It became apparent to everyone that Yuri was faking a twisted ankle. They wind up going to a tie-break, best of nine. They trade points, back and forth, until they reach a pivotal 4-4. And it’s now sudden death. One more point for the match. In the crucial and deciding rally, Sergei hits a screaming backhand, hot off his racket, up the line. It’s close, but it’s in. Yuri, standing in the center of the court, looks down, as if dejected and beaten. He slowly walks to the net but then his head comes up and a smile on his face. He points to the line and says, “It’s out.”

The federation didn’t have enough staff to have full linesmen and umpires, so they modeled it after the way it’s done in US juniors: players act as their own linesmen. The honor system. Yuri says the ball was out. Sergei is in disbelief. One former federation official who was there said that he heard Yuri smugly whisper across the net, “I guess your papa is right, you are a failure and a huge disappointment.” Bedlam breaks out among the parents, the elder Jerkhinov is going ape, Sergei is screaming “You cheated, it was in!” Federation staff are confused, they don’t know what’s going on.

And thus begins Sergei’s torment….

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