Against All Odds
by Robert Davis
© Robert Davis / All Other Photos © Max Mirnyi
At 33, Max Mirnyi still has a terrific work ethic.
Max Mirnyi is a winner of multiple Grand Slam titles and has become one of the sport's greatest ambassadors, but 'The Beast' has never forgotten where he came from.
The name on the passport reads Maxim Nikolayevich Mirnyi. Most people just call him Max. But for those men that have seen this six-foot five-inch, 210-pound Belarusian stripped with those broad-as-a-bull shoulders, chiseled from marble torso, and great big hands and feet, he is known simply as — The Beast.
This is the story of a boy who was forced into manhood real fast; accepting responsibilities and expectations without doubt or complaint. Over a career that has spanned nearly two decades, he reached the Top 20 in singles, and won seven grand slam doubles championships and thirty-seven doubles titles. When Max Mirnyi began his rise it was a time of great uncertainty; the Soviet Union was teetering on collapse and war loomed in the Baltics. Max’s father, Nikolai, a man so big that he was given double portions of food when he served in the Soviet Army, had a decision to make. One of the most renown tennis coaches in the Soviet Union, Arcadiy Edelman, had just signed a professional contract with Match Point Promotions to bring teenage phenom Tatiana Ignatieva to America. And he wanted young Max to join them as a hitting partner. Max Mirnyi was barely 13 years old. Nikolai knew it was a long shot, but it was the only shot he had.
“During the summer in New York we used public courts in Brooklyn at Neptune Street,” Mirnyi recalls. “And during the winter we played at Starret City Club. We trained ourselves as well as helped Arcadiy (Edelman) with clinics for local kids. Tatiana and I were winning most of the junior tournaments on the east coast, so soon the amount of kids in his groups grew very rapidly. We were training about two hours a day, and then hitting with adults and kids for another four hours per day. We were very tired at the end of the day.”
The clinics began raking in the money. Max started stringing racquets for the kids and even though Edelman took the money, parents would often tip Max on the side. Max hid his tips under the bed in his suitcase. The junior clinics grew so much that Edelman could not travel with Ignatieva on the junior and professional circuits. Young though he was, Max was now given a man’s responsibility. Edelman sent him as the coach and companion of Ignatieva. Max Mirnyi was still only 13 years old.
It did not take long before disturbing reports from Brooklyn began filtering through to the Mirnyi household back in Minsk. Max was being used. Slow to anger, Nikolai Mirnyi had finally heard enough. He decided he would travel to America to see about his boy for himself. There was just one problem — no money. Not to be deterred, he posted a letter to Max saying that he would soon arrive. Finally, after he managed to sell off some family heirlooms he had enough money for the airfare. Nikolai Mirnyi arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport with $14 and change in his pocket. Later that night, Max handed him a wad of bills totaling more than $300. It was the money that he had saved up from a year of stringing racquets. It did not take long for Nikolai to see what was going on, and with the money Max had saved up he decided enough was enough.
“It was like an opera scene,” Max remembers about the night his father took him away. “I was very close to Arcadiy. But Papa had made up his mind. Arcadiy was crying, screaming, begging, shouting and cursing.”
It is late at night in Brooklyn and Nikolai and Max are driving up and down the streets searching through rubbish piles.
“A former player, Sergey Leonyuk, who came to New York, was running the program at Brooklyn Racket Club,” says Mirnyi. “He offered us court time and a place to stay at one of his apartments that he was renting. This particular apartment was under renovation, so my father was helping Sergey's contractors polishing the floor and painting the walls while I was in school. Since the flat had no furniture Sergey drove us around during the night a few times and very soon we were fully furnished with a couple of mattresses from the dumpster, broken television from the club that we were able to view after Papa used a skiing pole as an antenna and a microwave that was disposed from a local Burger King.”
A few months later, the now 14-year-old Max Mirnyi got another opportunity. It would be a big one, and it came from Bradenton, Florida at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
“I was invited for a two-week camp,” begins Max. “And at the end of the two weeks one of Nick’s assistants says that next day at 3 p.m., Nick will watch me play on Court 40 (Bollettieri's personal court). I could not sleep the whole night. We were so nervous, because we knew that this was our family’s big chance. Next day, Papa had me warming up from 1pm. By 2:30 I was already worn out. Fortunately, I didn’t have to play too long.”
“I only needed 30 seconds to see he was special,” says Bollettieri. “I offered him a scholarship on the spot. And he has been with us for 20 years now.”
Even with a scholarship from Nick, Max would need money to travel to tournaments. Nikolai then did what he does best. He went to work. However, getting a job in the United States without proper paperwork was not easy. Eventually, he landed a job as a dishwasher at the Seiwoo Chinese Restaurant in Sarasota. It would not be enough. So, Nikolai saved up his earnings and soon he had enough money to buy a 1978 Ford Mercury, price — $500.
“The moment Papa got the car, he immediately started looking for another job,” says Mirnyi. “He got one looking after two elderly World War One veterans in St. Petersburg. He would take care of them in the day and wash dishes at night.”
It would take three years before Max would play ITF Satellites. In the autumn of 1995, Nikolai had scraped together and saved up enough money to send seventeen year old Max Mirnyi to Greece and Central America.
“After having paid for the air tickets, Papa sent me away with $250 cash in the pocket and calculated that this should last me for the first week of food and board,” recalls Max. “For the following weeks of the trip he told me that, you've got to make some money for yourself, son. In case you don't, ask somebody to lend you couple of hundred dollars and I'll pay them back as soon as we see them. Well, I never wanted to put our family in debt, so I fought like crazy and fortunately, I was able to win both satellites in singles and doubles. That was a big success but still didn't free Papa from having to wash dishes.”
Inch by inch, step by step Max Mirnyi would climb the ATP ladder. When his big breakthrough came, it was in a most unexpected way — mixed doubles. It was 1998 and Wimbledon. Nikolai sensed something in the air and went up to Richard Williams. Then Serena was just a little girl with big shots and bigger braids. Nikolai asked Richard if he could sign Serena up with Max for Mixed Doubles. Of course they would need a wild card to gain entry. Richard said that there was nothing to lose. Little did anyone realise that it would be all to gain. They won the title and next stop on the circuit was Flushing Meadows where they won again. It would be the finals of the Australian Open before they eventually lost. Nikolai Mirnyi would not be washing any more dishes now.
Still Max Mirnyi was not satisfied.
“Though he made his mark in doubles, Max was not happy,” says Bollettieri. “Max was disappointed that he had not done better in singles. So, he put his head down and went back to work. And he became a damn fine singles player.”
“What makes Max special I think is his attitude,” says Martina Navratilova. “I practised with Max a few times. He asked about specific volleying and shot selection. He obviously wanted to improve. When playing with him, he was always very positive and always gave his best effort.”
You could Google “Max Mirnyi” and find out a whole list of awards, records and laurels that span a career of almost two decades. You would read that he finished in the ATP Top 50 rankings for seven straight years and achieved a career-high singles ranking of No. 18. But if you go back and study his playing activity long enough two names stand out; Jim Courier and Marat Safin.
“In 1999, I somehow beat Jim Courier twice in three weeks; Orlando and Delray Beach.”
Kind, caring soul that he is, Max Mirnyi is no Mother Theresa on the tennis court. He will chip, chop, hack and attack you to death. He may not possess the prettiest ground strokes on Tour, far from it, but they were heavy handed and not designed for USPTA Stroke and Drill instructional videos.
Just ask the great champion Jim Courier. The former World No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion, found out the hard way that you have a better chance of getting around the Great Wall of China than passing Max Mirnyi at the net. After getting chopped by ‘The Beast’ at Delray Beach, Courier was so frustrated that former ATP staffer Weller Evans had to separate the two men. It was a good thing for Courier or he might have been knocked out of more than just the main draw.
In 2004, Belarus hosted Russia in Davis Cup. If Mother Russia thought she would give young Belarus a good old fashioned step-child spanking she was in for a shock. Marat Safin might have been the star, but Max Mirnyi was the spoiler. Playing at home, ‘The Beast’ went renegade, wielding the racquet like a scimitar, a hatchet and a dagger all at once. Slicing, stabbing, and spearing Safin for four hours and 15 minutes. ‘The Beast’ eventually bled the Russian to death by winning eleven games to nine in the deciding set.
“That match brought so much joy to the whole country,” says Mirnyi. And on the final day of the tie, Mirnyi clinched it for Belarus with a straight sets win over Igor Andreev.
At age 34, Max Mirnyi still gets up at the crack of dawn to practise yoga and Pilates. And in 2008, he graduated from Belarus State University with an International Law Degree. Mirnyi was also appointed a Good Will Ambassador to UNICEF in Belarus.
“Max has an inner drive and discipline that one could only dream their kids to have,” claims Kevin Ullyett, with whom Max won his first ATP World Tour doubles title.
And in the spring of 2011, the Max Mirnyi Sports Center in Minsk will open. Those that know Mirnyi best will tell you it is not his tennis results that make him special, but rather his kindness and determination off the court.
“Max’s mother, Tatiana, told me this story about Max,” begins Kseniya Mirnyi, Max’s wife. “During one New Year's Eve in Belarus, when Max was 10 years old the whole family had some type of treats and candy given to them. Max took time to observe everyone and their willing appetite while they were eating their candy. Once the last candy was eaten, Max quietly took out his full box of candy and shared it with the whole family.”
“It is his smile that is magic,” says Martina Navratilova fondly. ”He would give me a high five after a good point, and my hand would just disappear in his.”
“Our family has come a really long way and I am proud of so many things that Max has achieved in his life,” says Nikolai Mirnyi. “Each one of them is special. From many moments of his professional career to getting a good education and now building a wonderful family. Because of that he makes me very proud.”
“Max Mirnyi is the best investment I ever made in the Academy,” claims Nick Bollettieri. “He and his father are men, who refused to accept the circumstances of not being financially able to play the game, but took those circumstances and found a way to make it. Nikolai was a very humble and genuine man who did everything he could do to provide for his son.”
“Max has never, never, never, ever forgotten where he has come from,” continues Bollettieri. “When he is here with the kids he signs autographs, hits with them, volleys with them, gets out and plays singles and doubles with them. He does anything that you ask of him and even things that you don’t ask. Max Mirnyi always gives you back more than you gave him. Max Mirnyi is one out of a trillion.”
Max credits his father for his success.
“As I get older I understand that there are so many lessons that are still to be learned from Papa,” claims Max. “But, if I have to point out just one thing, I would have to say that he taught me the importance of a great work ethic.”
These days Max Mirnyi is not ready to hang up his racquets just yet. This year will see him team up with Daniel Nestor. It is doubtful that anyone who knows Nestor would suggest that he would play the part of ‘Beauty’ to Mirnyi’s ‘Beast’. But there can be no doubt that these two lions in winter could come up with some magical moments in 2011. Thus adding another chapter in an already storybook tale of the man from Minsk, known on the Tour for his hard rock body, determination and heart of gold.