The Net Post: Bubka looks to bring Great Britain crashing to earth
The Times Tennis Correspondent talks to Sergei Bubka, the son of the famous former pole vaulter, and spots an 80s icon
Sergei Bubka Junior will be among the Ukraine team trying to upset Great Britain in the Davis Cup this week
The same blue eyes, the disconcertingly chiselled features and lithe, athletic appearance and truly in the case of Sergei Bubka, it is like father, like son. Ask him if there are expectations on him because of......and before you can complete the question, he interrupts 'my father'. And then he answers it: 'Of course'.
One supposes it is only natural considering that his Dad happens to be one of the finest athletes who ever lived, the champion pole-vaulter at six consecutive world championships, whose hopes of an Olympic gold were dashed by others, by injury and by the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Games when he was in his prime. Bubka is the most recognisable face in his country, there is a statue of him in Donetsk, the city to which he re-located as a 15-year-old to hone the talent that would bring him unprecedented glories.
This week, Sergei Bubka junior, the 21-year-old tennis player, is a member of the Ukraine squad which plays Great Britain in the Euro African zone first round match in Glasgow. He was in the side when the two nations met in Odessa in 2006, the first time John Lloyd captained his country which hauled itself to a 3-2 victory and in which the singles players were Greg Rusedski and Andy Murray. (Bubka played the dead rubber, defeating Jamie Baker).
Currently, Bubka is ranked No.270 in the world, the third highest in Ukraine though he has played eight Davis Cup singles and won three live rubbers, which grants him a good deal more experience of the competition than Illya Marchenko, the Ukraine No.2, who has only appeared in a single dead rubber. Bubka is not happy with his ranking and neither, he knows, is his father.
"At home, it is not only the people who expect from you, but my father expects and so do I, to play a lot better than I am," he says. "I work hard, I always have a go, and I will do whatever I can to achieve what I want to achieve in my tennis career so that I will not have any regrets when it is over."
One asks Bubka whether getting himself inside the world's top 200 is a preliminary goal and he says "even higher" - which is something you would expect a Bubka to say. (His father was the first to break the 6metre mark in the pole vault and is still the only human to have cleared 6.10). "I think I would have been higher now but I had a stomach virus just over a year ago which set me back a little bit. It took me some time to get back into shape but I fell to around 640 in June last year so I've been working my way back." Bubka thinks he ate some carpaccio which did not agree with him. "It is not something a professional sportsman should do, but I take more care now," he says.
Until he turned 18, Bubka spent time working in Monaco with Bob Brett, the Australian who coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic and is currently supervising the rise and rise of Marin Cilic, the Croatian. When they parted company, he joined Sergiy Stakhovsky, his Ukrainian compatriot, in the stable of Tibor Togh, a Slovak based in Bratislava. Bubka and Stakhovsky are expected to play the doubles rubber in Glasgow next Saturday.
The same age as Andy Murray, Bubka recalls seeing him for the first time in Corsica, when the pair were 12 years old. "I am not sure that we played but you could tell then that he was one of the best for his age, it was obvious he had enormous potential and he has lived up to all of that. There were expectations on him in Britain to be the best player since Tim Henman but he is better than Henman already. He is a great talent. But we are confident. We have a young side, but a very determined one."
Bubka's results this year have not exactly been of the eye-catching variety. He has won just a single match since being beaten in the first round of qualifying for the Australian Open, which is where the Net Post caught up with him. At that time, Ukraine was at the centre of a dispute with Russia over the provision of gas supplies, one that had caused a terrible degree of hardship in Bubka's homeland one which he describes as having 'no real middle class."
"I do not get home that often but I do know that the financial crisis has hit us really hard, a lot of people have been made unemployed, and a lot of wealthy people do not have the money they used to have," he said. Bubka's father, though, remains a constant source of pride and inspiration, who dabbled in politics for a while and who now spends much of his time promoting the country as first vice-president of the domestic Olympic organising committee and an executive of the IOC. "My father travels a lot as do I. We don't see each other very often but we keep in touch on the phone, we speak most days. He is aware of how I am doing and takes a lot of interest in my career," young Sergei said.
This week, it brings young Sergei Bubka to Glasgow. "I am still trying to improve every element of my game. I am getting better, I think from the back of the court." His strength? "Definitely my athleticism," he says. "It's in the Bubka genes."