I love this man.
Whether on the Court or Off, the Unexpected Is Expected
By LIZ ROBBINS
Dmitry Tursunov, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian with ground strokes as bodacious as his personality, once broke a racket over his knee during a match.
“Like in pro wrestling,” he said. “Just to get the crowd going.”
In Monte Carlo this spring, Tursunov was late for his first-round match when he discovered that he had brought the wrong jerseys, the ones with his Davis Cup Russia logos. He ripped off the logos and plastered them on the lockers of the French players he had beaten the day before. Then he ran on court and won just three games.
Just who does this guy think he is?
“I’m the crazy guy who no one really knows what is going to happen next to,” Tursunov said earlier this month in Toronto, after losing to Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Rogers Cup. “I haven’t really figured out my place. But I’ve been playing actually fairly consistently. I think I am proving myself on the tour.”
Tursunov was born in Moscow to a mother who is an accountant and a strict father who is an engineer. His father pushed him into the sport and sent him to Northern California to train when he was 12. Tursunov seems to have been in a perpetual state of rebellion ever since.
Now 23 years old and ranked a career-high 26th in the world, Tursunov said he was starting to enjoy tennis on his own terms. Whether he can reign in his offensive inclinations will dictate his success on the fast courts of New York. He is seeded 23rd in the United States Open.
“On the court he hits the ball huge,” said Andy Murray, who was recently on the receiving end of a practical joke by Tursunov. At the Queen’s Club tournament in London in June, Tursunov anonymously tacked a magazine cover of Murray in the training room with the caption: “Kudos to the Makeup Artist.”
Murray said: “It matches his personality. Off the court, he’s pretty out there. He makes jokes all the time. And on the court, he doesn’t think too much. He tries to hit every ball really hard and serves big.”
Tursunov is by turns Russian, American, eccentric, sarcastic and introspective in a self-deprecating way. One thing he is not, however, is a free spirit.
He still harbors quiet resentment of his father’s early influence in his career. “If you’re a 6-year-old, how are you going to resist your parents’ taking you to the courts?” he said. “Obviously, I liked it at first, and I think my dad saw potential and maybe jumped the gun a little too much.”
But what would have happened if his father, Igor, then working at the Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow, had not pushed his youngest son into five-hour practices at age 6? Or what if Tursunov had not turned pro at 17? What would he be doing instead?
“I’d be blogging,” he said in perfect deadpan.
Tursunov captured attention in May for his irreverent entries on the ATP Tour’s Web site during a tournament in Estoril, Portugal. He chronicled the adventures of local drivers and his doubles partner, Marat Safin, and described his victory over a local qualifier on his least favorite surface: clay.
“Of course the kid was 15, but c’mon, I’m blond!” he said. “We all have our excuses.”
Tursunov, with his strawberry-blond curls, considers himself more Russian than Californian. “I don’t surf or skateboard,” he said. “The only thing I do is say ‘dude.’ ”
He said he watched cartoons to improve his English skills. He also read comic books — and Playboy magazine, for the articles, he insisted.
“There’s a lot of insight,” he said. “If you want to be successful like Hugh Hefner, you have to read what he writes. After tennis, I want to have a big house and wear a velvety robe.”
Perhaps his real reading list was not racy enough to share.
“When he came here, he was reading Chekhov and all the Russian classics — at age 12,” Vitaly Gorin, Tursunov’s coach, said in a phone interview this month.
Gorin runs an academy in Roseville, Calif. His father, Michael, a tennis player and coach in Russia, was friends with Igor Tursunov. After two years of resisting teaching a student so young, Gorin relented.
Tursunov’s talent awed him, he said, but his pupil’s disdain for tennis dismayed him. “I had to stop practicing and go to the Malibu Raceway, go play video games,” Gorin said. “With the amount of tennis forced on him, at some point, he would have broken and said, ‘Forget this.’ I wanted to lighten the mood.”
Tursunov found early success in the juniors, even intimidating Federer in a doubles match. “I remember I was scared at the net from his forehand and backhands,” Federer said in Toronto. “He was teeing off on every ball.”
Although Tursunov excelled in school and had a natural talent for drawing (he said he dreamed of becoming an architect), he left to follow the pro schedule his father wanted.
“He was paying for all my bills, and he was ordering the music,” Tursunov said. “He thought if I started playing earlier I would break through earlier.”
Tursunov’s career was interrupted three times by injury. He broke his leg late in 2000 chasing a ball, he said, and then within the next two years twice fractured his back, the second in a boating accident. In 2005, his ranking jumped to No. 61 when he was working under the tactician José Higueras.
Now Tursunov is with the fitness trainer Anatole Glebov, who had previously worked with Maria Sharapova — another Russian training in the United States. Tursunov said he left Higueras because he wanted a coach who traveled; he returned to Gorin, who is also his legal guardian.
As Tursunov grew to like tennis again, his relationship with his father in Russia also improved. Igor Tursunov does not travel to watch his son because, Dmitry, said, he does not speak English, and is busy operating a tennis school.
“My dad, he went through a transformation as well,” Tursunov said. “He understood that tennis was not permanent. He wanted me to have a better life than he did. Now he realizes that I’m set. I’m playing better. He wants to salvage the relationship. I realize he did what he did for a reason. I don’t know if there was another way.”
Perspective has helped him, though not completely soothed his inner child.
In the fourth round of Wimbledon this year, Tursunov lost his serve to go down by 8-7 in the fifth set to Jarkko Nieminen. Frustrated with the calls of the chair umpire, Fergus Murphy, Tursunov hit a ball that stuck the bottom of his chair. Murphy assessed a one-point penalty at the start of the next game; Nieminen won that game and the match.
When Tursunov went to shake Murphy’s hand, Tursunov tugged at the umpire’s hand and waved a finger in his face. In the news conference, Tursunov called Murphy an idiot.
Tursunov was fined $7,500, but he said that the ATP Tour directors told him they would try not to schedule the two for the same court again.
“I don’t regret it at all,” Tursunov said. “Maybe the way I handled it was not the best way, but I was rightfully angry.”
In his quest to harness his power, Tursunov also seems to be searching how best to carve his identity. He said that he feels “stuck in between” being Russian and American. “There’s a fine line, and I’m not quite on it,” he said.
No wonder he finds a kindred soul in animation: Wile E. Coyote.
“He’s losing the battle,” Tursunov said with a smile.
“It’s like Brad Gilbert and Ivan Lendl.”
“Boy, that guy needs to figure something out sometime soon.”