Unstoppable — My Life So Far
I’ve always loved to hit. From the time I was four years old. It’s the one thing that can fix any problem. You’ve lost Wimbledon in a frustrating match and everything that might have gone right went wrong? Pick up a racket and hit. The strings and the ball, the charge that carries through your body fixes everything. Hitting returns you to the present, where the flowers bloom and the birds sing. You’ve gotten terrible news from the other side of the world? Your grandmother died and there is nothing but a long flight and a funeral ahead? Pick up a racket, pick up a ball. And hit. The rules changed and you did not know the rules changed and all of a sudden a pill you have taken for years has undone everything? Pick up a racket and hit!
It’s one of my first memories. I was four years old. My father, who had taken up tennis a year or two earlier because his brother had given him a racket for his birthday, brought me along to the local courts where he played in Sochi. A small park with clay courts, a snack bar, and a Ferris wheel, from the top of which you could see over the apartment house to the Black Sea. That day, because I was bored, I pulled a racket and a ball out of his bag and started to hit. Off a fence, off a wall. I went around the corner and hit where other players were hitting. I was small and young and did not know what I was doing but quickly fell into a trance, the ball leaving and returning to my racket like a yo-yo in the palm of your hand. In this way, I got my father—Yuri; this is his story as much as mine—to stop what he was doing and notice me. In this way, my life began.
I’m not sure if I remember this, or if I just remember the old, faded photographs: a tiny blond girl with the knobby knees and oversized racket. I sometimes wonder if I’m still the same person who picked up that racket. Very quickly the game changed from the simplicity of hitting to the complications of coaches and lessons, matches and tournaments, the need to win, which is less about the trophies than about beating the other girls. I can get fancy and sweet about it, but at bottom my motivation is simple: I want to beat everyone. It’s not just the winning. It’s the not being beaten. Ribbons and trophies get old, but losing lasts. I hate it. Fear of defeat is what really drives many of us. I say “us” because I can’t possibly be the only person who feels this way. This might never have occurred to me had I not started writing this book. When you look, you notice patterns, connections. You see things in a new way.
I’ve often asked myself: Why write a book?
In part, it’s to tell my story, and it’s also to understand it. In many ways, my childhood is a mystery, even to me. I’m always being asked the same questions: How did I get here? How did I do it? What went right, what went wrong? As I said, if I’m known for one thing, it’s toughness, my ability to keep going when things look bad. People want to know where that quality comes from and, because everyone is hoping for their own chance, how to acquire it. I’ve never figured it out myself. In part, it’s because of who knows? If you look too deeply, maybe you destroy it. It’s my life and I want to tell it. I talk to reporters, but I never tell everything I know. Maybe now is the time to open up the door for more questions, and to make sense of my life and get down the early days before I forget. I hope people take away every kind of lesson, good and bad. This is a story about sacrifice, what you have to give up. But it’s also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure.
Where should I begin?
How about Gomel, a city in Belarus, its muddy streets and forest paths straight out of a fairy tale? It’s near the border with Russia, a short drive from Chernobyl in Ukraine. My father met my mother in school. What were they like? What were your parents like before you were born? It’s a mystery. My father will tell you he was a genius. And charming. My mother, Yelena, will not agree. He could drive her nuts. He was the kind of student who doesn’t do the reading and skips class, then strolls in and nails the test. School never was important to Yuri. He figured he’d outsmart the system, and there was no teacher who could tell him how.
Yuri was out of school fast. He was in the world by age twenty, working a job I still don’t really understand. He led crews that maintained smokestacks, the sort that spew. He traveled for that job, taking planes to factories all over the country. He spent days on a scaffold, hundreds of feet off the ground, maintaining whatever had to be maintained. Had the Soviet Union survived, he would’ve done that until he was old enough to retire. But the Soviet Union did not survive. It was, in fact, coming apart in my toddler years. If I asked about it, my father would say, “Gorbachev didn’t have the balls.” My father believes a person must be tough to hold anything together—a household, a career, even a country. He knew almost nothing about America. To him, it was blue jeans and rock ’n’ roll and keep the rest. Same with tennis. He did not know about it, did not care. In Russia, tennis was for deposed aristocrats. Yuri played ice hockey and loved to mountain climb, which may explain his life atop the smokestacks.
My mother is beautiful and petite, with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. She’s better educated than my father: aced high school and college, then went on to get the equivalent of a master’s degree. She loves the great Russian writers (when I was little she read me stories and made me memorize passages before I could understand what they were about). By 1986 she was living with my father in a house on the edge of town. There was a yard in front and a forest in back. My grandparents were not far away. My mother’s parents lived in the far north, Siberia, which will be important. When my mother and father talk about those years, it sounds like Eden. The house, the trees, and the shade under the trees, a young couple very much in love. They were poor but did not know it. The house was small and drafty but they did not know that either.
Then it happened: my uncle gave my father a tennis racket for his birthday. It was a joke. Only rich people played tennis. But a club had just opened in Gomel and my father thought, “Why not?” He started too late to become a great player, but he’s a natural athlete, and got good quickly. He fell in love with the game, read books and articles about the stars, watched the Grand Slams on TV. He was preparing himself, though he did not know it. He was in training to become that strange and exotic thing, a tennis parent.
(This is where you’re supposed to laugh.)
* * *
One morning in April 1986, as she was working in the garden, my mother heard a rumble in the distance, like thunder. She was wearing a scarf on her head and no shoes, her feet in the dirt. She looked at the sky, then carried on. At first, it was no more than that—just something that makes you look up. She was soon to be pregnant with me, her only child. The rumors started that night, wild, terrifying tales. What exactly caused that rumble? There was smoke in the sky the next morning. That’s when the rumors took shape. These concerned the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. People said it had exploded, that radioactive material had been thrown into the air and would rain down on everything. As if an atomic bomb had been dropped on us. When people went to the government for information, they were told everything was fine. Still, there was panic. Families were packing up and heading off. My mother got a call from her mother, who’d been able to learn more in Siberia than my parents could forty miles from the explosion.
“We called your mother and told her to get out,” Grandma Tamara told me. “Chernobyl was lethal—it killed all living organisms. It was an invisible death. We knew this because we’d met a man who’d been sent in as part of the cleanup. He said the radiation was off the scale. At first, the officials said nothing. People were not even advised to close their windows! Everyone just kept living as before. I remember this man telling us: ‘The mushrooms coming up in the forest are as big as dinner plates!’ When he took pictures, all the film came back overexposed. This man died at forty-five or fifty years old. All those workers did.”
My parents went north. Other people stayed. My father’s mother stayed. Years later, we’d go to her house on vacation. We’d be amazed by the huge forest mushrooms. Everyone said it was caused by radiation, which makes you wonder. My mother and father are not small, but are not big either. I am six foot two, not counting heels. I tower over them. So where did that height come from? My father says I grew because I needed size to compete. He’s a believer in the power of human will. But my mother was about to be pregnant with me when the reactor blew, drinking the water and eating the vegetables, and continued to drink the water and eat the vegetables after she had gotten pregnant, so who knows?
When I asked my father about their escape from Gomel, he laughed. “It was a crazy, crazy time,” he said. “We went to your grandparents’ house because they lived in Siberia, which was as far away as we could get. We took the train, an old train jammed with people. Thirty-six hours from Gomel to Yekaterinburg, called Sverdlovsk in those days, then two more hours by air to Nyagan, close to the Arctic Circle.”
My father calls Nyagan “a shitty little town.” That’s where I was born, on April 19, 1987. Yuri was gone by then, having left for work as soon as my mother was settled. He was back in Gomel, celebrating Easter with his parents, when he learned that he was a father.
Yuri came to see me a few weeks later. That’s when he got his first good look at Nyagan, a brutal industrial outpost of apartment blocks and factories, and knew that he could never live there, nor go back to Gomel. He decided to make the best of the situation and take us to a place he’d always wanted to live: Sochi, a Black Sea resort situated between mountains and sea. Yuri had fallen in love with the place on a
My grandparents thought he was crazy, but lent him some money anyway. He was able to trade our house in Gomel for a tiny little apartment in Sochi. We arrived there when I was two years old. Had we not moved to Sochi, I never would’ve taken up tennis. It’s a resort and tennis is part of its life. That made it different from the rest of Russia, where the sport was unknown. If you had to pick one event that made me a player, it’d be Chernobyl.
We still own that apartment. It’s on a steep side street, Vishnevaya (Cherry) Street, sixth floor, in the back of the building. When we came home, I would race up the stairs with the key, leaving my parents to trudge up the five flights behind me. I have such fond memories of the afternoons I spent there as a child, the intimate dinners, the funny conversations, the people coming and going, my grandmother sitting on the stairs, chatting entire evenings away. My earliest recollections are of looking out the window of that apartment at the boys and girls in the playground up the hill. My parents were very protective. They did not let me out much. Mostly, I was just at the window, watching other kids play.
From the start, my parents took different roles in my life. My father was practice and sports and competition—outside. My mother was school and letters and stories—inside. She made me copy the Russian alphabet again and again and again, working on each letter till it was perfect. She made me write stories and memorize Russian poems. Best was when she just let me read. Pippi Longstocking was my favorite. I dreamed about the world of the little girl, daughter of a wealthy sailor, with money in her pocket, doing whatever she wanted, just like a grown-up. She had a horse. And she had a monkey! That book took me to the place I wanted to live.
My grandparents would visit from Nyagan. I loved spending time with Grandma Tamara. I talked to her when I was working on this book—she remembers so much I can’t. She laughed when I asked about the day I nearly drowned. “There’s a simple explanation, which maybe you can understand better now,” she told me. “I was only forty years old when you were born. I really didn’t want to be called Grandmother. When you were three or four, we’d go to the beach. I’d swim a bit, then you’d go into the water and splash. Suddenly, I’d hear you screaming, ‘Grandmother! Grandmother!! Grandmother!!!’ And, you see, there were young men around on the beach, and I didn’t want them to know. So I pretended not to hear you. Later, I sat next to you and whispered: ‘Mashenka, don’t call me Grandmother in front of others!’ I changed you into clean, dry underwear, I remember this well, and began wringing out your swimming panties, and suddenly you go, ‘You’re not a grandmother! You’re a squeezer!’”
As soon as I was old enough to look after myself a bit, Yuri started taking me around. Wherever he went, I went. That’s why I was at the court that day, where I picked up a tennis racket for the first time. Riviera Park. For whatever reason, I had this ability. I could hit that ball against that wall for hours. It was not my skill people remarked on. It was my concentration—that I could do it again and again without getting bored. I was a metronome. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. I attracted a crowd. People stood around, watching. This happened day after day. It got to the point where Yuri felt he had to do something. Which is why, when I was four, he enrolled me in a tennis clinic for kids. That’s how I found my first coach, Yuri Yudkin, a playground legend, a vodka-soaked maestro. He’d been out in the world, the big world of tennis, so he knew a thing or two. He dazzled provincial Sochi. Tennis parents stood in line to hear his pronouncements or, better, let him appraise and coach their kids. A few locals had already made the big time, like Yevgeny Kafelnikov. My father enrolled me with Yudkin. He’d line you up the first day and watch you hit. If he paused, your heart leaped and you hit harder. He spoke to my father at the start and said that I seemed to be something special, unique. It was how my eyes tracked the ball, and the way I kept at it. Whether I developed into a player would depend on my toughness.
“Does Masha have it, or not? This is what we will find out.”
Maria is not my real name. I was christened Masha. But there is no good match for Masha in English, and soon after I arrived in America, people started calling me Marsha, which I hated—they connected me to the Brady Bunch!—so I got out in front of that and told people to call me Maria.
By toughness, Yudkin meant persistence, the quality that makes you lock in and focus when asked to do the same thing a million times. If you ask most kids to do something, they will do it once or twice, then get restless, shut down, and walk away. To be great at anything, Yudkin believed, you had to be able to endure a tremendous amount of boredom. That is, you had to be tough. Was I? Time would tell.
I was soon taking private lessons on the back courts. Yudkin was a genius at building those first strokes, and that’s everything. The basics. If you don’t get that right, you’re going to have problems. Like setting out on a long trip and your first step is in the wrong direction. At the beginning, it’s all you have: a simple forehand, a simple backhand. It’s all you have at the end, too. Yudkin hands me a racket. “What do you do?” He hands me a ball: “And what do you do now?” He sits on the side, watching. He says, “Yes, yes, no, no, no. Not flat like that, you have to put a loop in your swing, get under the ball.” He asks, “As your right hand does that, what’s your left hand doing?” He’d give me a simple task, have me do it again and again. And again and again. And again. He was building my stroke, but also developing my concentration. “Get tough, Masha.” The player who keeps working five minutes after everyone else has quit, who carries on late in the third set when the wind is blowing and the rain is coming down, wins. That was my gift. Not strength or speed. Stamina. I never got bored. Whatever I was doing, I could keep doing it forever. I liked it. I locked into each task, and stayed at it until I got it right. I’m not sure where that comes from. Maybe I wanted approval from Yudkin, or my father. But I think my motivation was simpler. Even then, I knew these tasks, this tedium, would help me win. Even then, I wanted to beat
My father had become friendly with some of the other Sochi tennis parents, especially the father of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a real hotshot back in the day. Yevgeny was one of the first stars of post-Soviet Russian tennis. He reached number one in the world, and won the French and Australian Opens. He was big and blond, handsome, a hero to a lot of us. I played his father one day for fun. Afterward, he gave me one of Yevgeny’s rackets. It was way too big. They cut it down and it still looked ridiculous, but I played with that racket for years. Sometimes I think it made me better, sometimes worse. It was like swinging a weighted baseball bat. It forced me into helpful positions and made me strong, yet its weight forced my strokes into awkward positions, creating some bad habits. But it’s all I had, so it was my only option.
The summer of 1993 was a turning point. I’d been working with Yudkin for several months. I’d become his project, but he knew I’d soon exhaust my opportunities in Sochi. When I asked my father if he remembered that moment, he laughed. “Do I remember? Like yesterday, Masha. Yudkin sat me beside the court and said, ‘Yuri, we need to talk about your girl. It’s important.’ Yudkin was careful when he spoke. He said, ‘Yuri, when it comes to this game, your little girl is like Mozart. She can be the best in the world. If you want to know, if you want to compare, that’s how she compares—that’s the bad situation you are in.’”
“The bad situation?” my father asked Yudkin.
“Yes, bad. Because this is not Vienna in the nineteenth century. This is Sochi in the twentieth century—if Mozart were born here, today, you’d never hear of him. Do you understand?”
“I’ll put it simply,” he said. “If you want to develop your daughter’s talent, you have to get out of Russia. No one knows where we are going in this country. No one knows even how they’ll make a living. And meanwhile, in the middle of this, you’ve got Masha. So it’s up to you. Can you develop her talent? It’s a full-time job. It will mean dedicating your life.
“In the end, the only real question is this: How tough is your daughter, really?” said Yudkin. “She is strong. I know that already. But what about in the long run? She will have to play constantly, day after day, year after year. Will she come to detest it? It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. How will she handle that, not for just one tournament, but for years? How long will she have the desire? Five years, ten years? Nobody can tell you that.”
My father says he made the decision at that moment, without thinking. A gut thing. When you let your brain overrule your gut, you screw up your life. That’s what Yuri believes. He knew very little about tennis and had no illusions about the obstacles, but he quickly decided that he could educate himself, learn what he needed to know. For him, it was a question of will. If you decide to do it, you can do it—end of story. In the next few weeks, he gave up everything. Quit his job, ditched his pension and plans. He dedicated himself to this one goal: his daughter would become the best tennis player in the world. If he thought about it, he’d know that it was stupid. So he did not think about it, he went to work. He started by reading everything he could find about the sport and coaching. In the end, he decided he would not be my coach but the strategist overseeing the coaches—a coach of coaches. “Behind all great careers, there’s one advisor, one voice,” he explained. “You can bring different people in to give you whatever you need, but there has to be that one person in control. That’s not a coach. That’s a person who hires and fires the coaches, who never loses sight of the big picture. It does not have to be a parent, but it usually is. If you look at the history of this game, you’ll see there’s almost always someone like that. The Williams sisters had their father. Agassi had his father and Nick Bollettieri. Everybody needs somebody.”
* * *
What about my mom? How did she feel about this radical new plan?
My father will tell you that she was on board from the start, that she viewed the idea of him quitting everything and dedicating himself to tennis instead as just terrific. But if you ask my mom, the story is more complicated. The truth is that she did not believe in tennis, but she did trust my father. As he shared his vision, made his pitch, explained what he wanted to do, I’m sure she looked at him like he was crazy. But she loved him and believed in him and came around. “He was just so sure of it,” she told me, “that I knew it was going to work.”
My father quit his job—that’s how it began. We spent every day together, hours and hours working toward the same goal. It could get tough—he can be hard to deal with—but there was never a moment I did not know that he loved me. We made our way by trial and error, figuring out how to train. A basic routine was soon in place. I’d wake at dawn, have breakfast, grab my racket, and take the bus to Riviera Park as the sun rose over the Black Sea. The courts were supposed to be red clay, but they were dark gray, almost black, because they were not well kept. The grime would cover your shoes and socks. We’d hit back and forth, slowly, then picking up speed. If it was damp or had rained, the ball was heavy and the pace was slow. But if the weather was good, the ball sailed through the air quickly. I loved the sound of the ball coming off the racket in the morning, when we had the courts to ourselves. I did not have to speak to my father to know what he was thinking. A lot is made of the relationships between child athletes and their parents, but a lot of the time it was just about being across from each other, thinking the same thing, which was nothing. That’s about as close as you can get to another person. In a sense, my entire career is just that moment. There’s the money and trophies and fame, but beneath it all I’m just practicing with my father and it’s early in the morning. We’d hit for a while, then I’d stretch and watch other people practice. After that, we’d work on a specific part of my game. Backhand or serve, footwork, at the net—though I still dread coming to the net. It’s as if a shark were waiting for me up there. It was my goal, from the start, to one day beat my father or beat one of his friends, one of the hotshots. I got a little closer each day.
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