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The Tennis Week Interview: Max Mirnyi
By Richard Pagliaro
The spontaneity of serve-and-volley tennis has always appealed to Max Mirnyi, who can summon creativity from his soft hands in the split second it takes to strike a stab volley. Mirnyi remains that rarest of breeds in today's tennis: a serve-and-volleyer completely committed to his cause rushing fearlessly forward to face the fire from the passing shot practitioners of baseline tennis.
The man who will celebrate his 30th birthday two days before Wimbledon concludes on July 8 is keeping an athletic art form alive at a time when even its most avid supporters and former champions have written its obituary.
"I think it's extinct. I see a lot of big servers that aren't really looking to come in. You look at Wimbledon the last few years. Even Federer to some extent isn't looking to come in," 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras told Tennis Week. "Everyone is staying back, hitting big groundstrokes. A lot of it is technology. These young guys are growing up with big racquets and strings. They don't really learn how to hit a proper volley. I learned with a wood racquet, so I had to have the right technique. Guys are hitting big, a lot of spin, a lot of control. You don't see anyone attacking Roger [Federer] or anyone. He's dictating what he wants from the back court. That's always the best contrast, I felt, having a serve-and-volley player, playing against a baseliner. It's a good clash. I don't see it changing. I don't see any really serve and volleyers coming up. It's extinct. It's sad to see."
While Mirnyi makes his living moving forward it is those moments when he look back on his junior days that began in Belarus and eventually took him to Brooklyn and Bradenton that have given him the greatest appreciation for his growth in the game.
"My goals don't change ever since I matured. Whatever I'll do it will be so that I am not going to regret a thing looking back on it," Mirnyi says. "I love my daily challenges today and look forward to over coming them."
The Minsk, Belarus-born Mirnyi whose attacking game has earned him the nickname "The Best" holds Belarus' Davis Cup records for most wins (44-23), most doubles victories (20-9) and most ties played (31) and shares national records with Vladimir Voltchkov for most singles victories (24-14), most years played (14) and best doubles team (17-7).
As a junior who spent part of his childhood training in Brooklyn with Voltchkov, a much shorter Mirnyi wielded a two-handed backhand and played a baseline style similar to Lleyton Hewitt before moving to Bradenton, Florida, hitting a growth spurt and developing his signature serve-and-volley style under Nick Bollettieri and his father Nikolai, a former volleyball standout, who remains his coach.
Most tennis fans know him as the world's third-ranked doubles player, a man who has partnered Jonas Bjorkman, his current doubles teammate, as well as Hewitt and Mahesh Bhupathi to Grand Slam doubles titles. In addition, Mirnyi teamed with Serena Williams to win the 1998 Wimbledon and U.S. Open mixed doubles crowns.
But Mirnyi has been a strong singles presence as well. Currently ranked No. 48 in singles, Mirnyi has registered seven straight season-ending appearances in the ATP's top 60. Even on clay, the tennis equivalent of quicksand for many serve-and-vollyers, Mirnyi has crafted success. The two-time defending French Open doubles champ (with Bjorkman) knocked off 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis en route to last week's Monte-Carlo fourth round and has advanced to the semifinals and quarterfinals at the Tennis Masters Series-Hamburg.
"To me clay generally gives more time to be creative," Mirnyi says. "I get a much higher percentage of returns in play than on faster surfaces and the fact that the bounces aren't always perfect it makes passing shots, especially under pressure, tougher to execute."
When he's hitting his spots in the service box on serve, reading Mirnyi's serve can be as easy as detecting the date on a dime as it descends through the air on a coin toss and trying to loft a lob over the 6-foot-5 Mirnyi can be as comfortable as playing leap frog over the Fred Perry statue that stands in the shadow of Centre Court at Wimbledon.
A year ago, Mirnyi showed why he can be such a dangerous singles force when he beat former Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis then rallied from a two-set to one deficit by winning 12 of the final 13 games in dismissing a discouraged James Blake 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-0, to reach the fourth round of The Championships for the third time in the past four years. He fell in five sets to his doubles partner, Bjorkman, 3-6, 6-7(6), 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, marking the second time in the past four years he has lost to Bjorkman in the Wimbledon round of 16.
The father of two is a self-taught guitar player who often tunes into his best tennis against the top players. He owns career victories over current World No. 1 Roger Federer as well as former top-ranked players Sampras (Mirnyi won two of three meetings with Sampras), Gustavo Kuerten and Marat Safin.
"It's very hard to play against players who serve-and-volley all the time like Mirnyi," Safin said after one match with Mirnyi. "It's hard to keep focused: he just keeps coming."
Mirnyi is so definitive in his direction, he moves with the self-assured certainty of a man whose racquet is equipped with a tennis Map Quest.
If Mirnyi looks like he plays tennis with all the exuberance of a man who has gained a new lease on life, that's because he has. Mirnyi and wife Ksusha, the proud parents of daughters Melanie and six-week old Petra, may be alive today thanks to two-and-a-half year-old Melanie, who helped save her parents lives before she was even born.
Shortly before 5 a.m. on a May morning three years ago, the Mirnyis were sound asleep in the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi where many ATP players were staying while playing Rome when a fire began raging through the building.
In the early stages of pregnancy, Ksusha woke up to use the bathroom, was struck by the acrid smell of smoke and through the darkness she saw the door began to blur into a blaze. Ksusha awoke her husband from a sound sleep and the couple escaped with little more than the clothes on their back.
Three people perished in the fire. Marat Safin's racquets were burnt to ashe, Sjeng Schalken leaped from his seventh floor balcony to the safety of Andy Roddick's sixth floor suite where the pair helped some guests to safety.
On the street, Mirnyi, clad only in a pair of shorts and a towel, and Ksusha were thankful to escape with their lives.
"I certainly remember that horrifying moment. I am not sure if it wasn't for the early stages of my wife's pregnancy, which made her go to the bathroom more often than before, would we have woken up at that time of night," Mirnyi recalls. "She got up only for that reason and only then smelled the smoke and saw the front door catch fire. I was deep asleep when she woke me up having seen all that. We were very lucky and didn't know who to thank: The God, stars, the destiny or maybe just our little Melanie who decided to fight for her life already there?! We are so grateful to still be here and live the lives we are living!"
An extremely fit player, who routinely plays more than 100 combined singles and doubles matches each year, it is Mirnyi's desire to play his best tennis every match as much as his distinctive style that has earned him a loyal fan following. When he makes his annual return to the U.S. Open every year his family, friends and fans from Brooklyn's Belarussian and Russian communities flock to Flushing Meadows in full force to support the man who made it: competitor and crowd remain connected.
"My New York part of life seems to relive itself every time I am back for the U.S. Open," says Mirnyi, who splits his time between homes in Minsk and Bradenton. "Going to the old places, staying in the hotel just a few block from where I went to school having so much support from my friends at the time and now the whole of Russian community that lives there is just something that I don't get anywhere else in the world and for that reason I treasure it very much. It's great to see old friends take so many different directions in life yet be so connected when that time comes again."
Tennis Week caught up with Mirnyi for this interview in which he discusses the key components to creating a winning doubles team, his views on the recent ATP issues with round-robin play and reforming the Masters Series schedule, how he and his wife balance family life with his career, the state of tennis in Belarus and his future goals in the game.
Tennis Week: Max, Your wife recently gave birth to your second child. How do you balance family life and life on the ATP Tour and has being a father helped your tennis in any respect? How did your family and the Bjorkman family decide to name your kids in honor of each other?
Max Mirnyi: The most important person for me in this family-building process has been my wife. We are certainly both thrilled to have already two kids, but I wouldn't have been able to continue my career in full capacity without the support of my wife. By being very committed to our family values she helps me balance the life as a professional athlete as well as the father and the husband. Naming our kids was not something our families spoke about. It's hard to believe, but there were other reasons for naming our kids this way. In our case it's reaching out to the roots of names in our family tree.
Tennis Week: In addition to the obvious tennis skills required, what are the most important qualities for a great doubles team? Is it communication? Experience playing together? Chemistry? A great server, greater returner combination? What makes for a great doubles team and how have you and Jonas been able to sustain your success?
Max Mirnyi: It is certainly all of those things that you've mentioned and plus every successful team has a strong belief in their ability and at most times those teams have enough tools on any given day to find a way to win. Trust in each other helps come through some of those difficult moments and most importantly in time of defeat being able to stay emotionally balanced as a team and continue to work together on you games.
Tennis Week: You just beat Marcos Baghdatis in Monte-Carlo last week, how do you feel about the state of your singles game right now? The year Henman reached the French Open semis in 2004 he said he felt being a serve-and-volleyer on clay actually helped him sometimes because his slice stayed so low it posed problems for the clay courters and because he could exploit the front court against baseliners even though they have a lot more time to hit passing shots. Do you feel that way at all?
Max Mirnyi: The win against Marcos was just another reminder for me that clay could be volley-friendly surface. Tim definitely has a point with a slice staying low, but to me clay generally gives more time to be creative. I get a much higher percentage of returns in play than on faster surfaces and the fact that the bounces aren't always perfect it makes passing shots, especially under pressure, tougher to execute.
Tennis Week: What's the state of tennis in Belarus now? I remember you were elected vice president of the Belarus Tennis Federation are there any projects/plans the Federation is working on to foster growth of tennis there?
Max Mirnyi: As I am sure you understand, developing world class tennis players isn't an overnight experience. I was offered the post of the vice president of our association in the beginning of 2004. I said that I would only be able to have any kind of input on a consulting basis due to the priority on my tennis carrier and that was accepted by the board. I hope our Davis Cup World Group performance in the last four years as well as my individual success on the ATP Tour have inspire many youngsters to take on tennis. In the meantime, we've done important fundamental work that we hope will have a result in the future. Taking tennis to very many schools around the county, having a tennis class as part of their daily routine, giving kids an opportunity to, at an early stages of their lives, play and get the taste for the game of tennis for free is something we believe will give us a chance to gather more talent for the junior level of play. Many more tennis facilities, indoor in particular, have been built in the last three to four years around the country, which will give better chances for our tennis population in Belarus to make progress throughout the year. It is still a long way to go from there, but we want to make sure that tennis in Belarus is accessible to most people, but especially to kids. The government program that we've put in place is also very important to us. With that we are able to provide some of the better kids, juniors, traveling pros with needed training sessions, medical support, travel expenses and much more at no cost to them. So far we are proud or the recent progress of our female players. Two girls broke the top 100 barrier and a couple are leading the junior world ranking (18 and 14). On the boys side, we have some hope too but it will take more time. In general we see the upward momentum now and to us this is very important.
Tennis Week: What's your position on the ATP's doubles initiatives now? Do you have a viewpoint on the decision to strip Monte Carlo and Hamburg of their Masters Series status? Is there a possibility of a resolution between those tournaments and the ATP?
Max Mirnyi: It's very tough shoes to be in right now, speaking of our CEO Etienne de Villiers. To balance out the interest of players, tournaments, sponsors, TV contracts and ITF is the toughest thing to do in our business. I support the decisions that our board makes along with Etienne because we have highly professional group of people working for us and they are continuously trying to find the best possible solution that tennis, as a sport, will benefit from in the long run. There are some rough moments right now, no doubt, whether you take doubles revolution, round robin, Master Series status or whatever it may be, but no change has ever been smooth and this is no exception. Patience is the right prescription to many problems.
Tennis Week: You look even more physically stronger than ever this year: you look ripped. Do you do any other sports or specific off court training to help your tennis?
Max Mirnyi: Off-court training has always been a big part of my regimen. Now, more than before, I focus on this aspect simply because the game just doesn't get any easier. It's a tough competition out there and I want to always give myself the best chance I can to win every match. For training I base out of Bradenton, Florida at the Bollettieri/IMG academy and there is a wonderful system in place where I can successfully realize my professional goals.
Tennis Week: We're approaching the anniversary of that tragic fire in Rome and I remember you were one of the people who escaped that fire. Do you ever think about that and if so what do you remember and how did it change your life?
Max Mirnyi: I certainly remember that horrifying moment. I am not sure if it wasn't for the early stages of my wife's pregnancy, which made her go to the bathroom more often than before, would we have woken up at that time of night. She got up only for that reason and only then smelled the smoke and saw the front door catch fire. I was deep asleep when she woke me up having seen all that. We were very lucky and didn't know who to thank: The God, stars, the destiny or maybe just our little Melanie who decided to fight for her life already there?! We are so grateful to still be here and live the lives we are living!
Tennis Week: Do you still play music? What do you play? You are still very popular among tennis players in Brooklyn, do you ever go back and visit when in NYC? Lastly, what are your goals for the rest of this season?
Max Mirnyi: I try to play a little every day when I am at home. It became much more of a hassle to travel with the guitar after 9/11. I am in love with the music that I grew up with: Soviet pop, rock, chanson was my favorite. Some of these artists I had an opportunity to meet while traveling. Those were special moments that gave me goose bumps and threw me back in the childhood days, seeing them as idols. My New York part of life seems to relive itself every time I am back for the U.S. Open. Going to the old places, staying in the hotel just a few block from where I went to school having so much support from my friends at the time and now the whole of Russian community that lives there is just something that I don't get anywhere else in the world and for that reason I treasure it very much. It's great to see old friends take so many different directions in life yet be so connected when that time comes again. My goals don't change ever since I matured. Whatever I'll do It will be so that I am not going to regret a thing looking back on it. I love my daily challenges today and look forward to overcoming them.