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Ukrainian Teenager Strives for the Top

Mykyta Kryvonos sat in his bedroom spinning a desktop globe, a view of the world at his fingertips, on the eve of his first trip to the most prestigious national junior tennis tournament in the United States.

"I like to see where my next match is," Kryvonos said as he traced the route from his home in Flushing, Queens, to Kalamazoo, Mich., the site of the United States Tennis Association Boys' 16's Super National Hard Court Tennis Championships.

The 15-year-old Kryvonos could also track his journey from Ukraine, where he was the top-ranked under-13 junior, to the two-family house on 166th Street in Flushing. And now Kryvonos hopes that his performance in the boys' nationals, which began Friday and runs through next Sunday, will put him on the tennis map.

Kryvonos, who is seeded 16th in the tournament, could be on his way. After a first-round bye, he won his second-round match, 1-6, 6-1, 6-0, over Shan Sondhu yesterday.

College scouts, sponsors and professional agents are among the thousands of spectators at the national boys' 16's and 18's championships, which are run simultaneously on the courts of Kalamazoo College. Jimmy Connors and Stan Smith won national boys titles there, and Andy Roddick and Jan-Michael Gambill reached the finals. Traditionally, getting to the finals means entry into the junior United States Open later this month.

"I'm excited to play at Kalamazoo," said Kryvonos, a 5-foot-10 baseliner with a powerful forehand and potent serve who reached the boys' 16's national clay court final two weeks ago. "I love competition, and winning."

Kryvonos's indomitable work ethic was forged among the steel factories of Donetsk, Ukraine. At age 12, Mykyta Kryvonos (pronounced Meh-KEE-tah Kreh-VAH-nos) was the country's best, but money for private court time and lessons was scarce. Every day after school he would take a 45-minute bus ride to Lokomotiv, the state sports club on the outskirts of Donetsk.

The club had only one indoor court for nearly 45 students, so Kryvonos and his best friend, Dimitri Tolok, now the top Ukrainian junior, would wait for the others to go home for dinner. Intense practice sessions, often lasting well past midnight, followed on the dilapidated wooden court with its creaky floorboards.

"We would have to walk miles in the darkness to get home, running through the snow past high bushes that looked like strangers in the night," Kryvonos said.

The Kryvonos family obtained a permanent visa to the United States in the autumn of 1999. Around the time that Eastern Europeans were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kryvonos and his parents, Sergey and Nataly, were on a plane headed to America. "I remember that day," Sergey Kryvonos said. "Our friends met us at J.F.K. and took us to Flushing."

The same friends brought the family to the Fila Sports Club in nearby Long Island City, where Kryvonos got his first taste of winter tennis the American way: 20 indoor courts in bubbles hovering overhead like perfectly blown gum. There he met Andy Udis, a nationally ranked player on the senior circuit, who became his favorite hitting partner.

"Andy gave me shoes," Kryvonos said. "I had never seen so many pairs except maybe in a store."

Like "The Little Prince" in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic who travels to new planets, Kryvonos is discovering a world here where he can pursue his dreams. Tennis is his first priority. School comes second. Kryvonos will enter his junior year at Keystone National High School, a home-school program that allows students to earn a diploma at home.

"It allows me to fit schoolwork around my tennis," Kryvonos said.

Sergey Kryvonos, a mining engineer who designed tunnels for the coal industry in Donetsk, has not worked since arriving in the United States. Instead he has devoted his time to helping his son's tennis career, transporting him to training sessions and tournaments around the country.

"Whatever Mykyta wants, I'll do what I can to help," a smiling Kryvonos said, sitting in the family's living room where his son's trophies shine like sparkling jewels on the mantel. "He has big dreams to become a tennis professional."

Meanwhile, Nataly Kryvonos has supported the family as a software specialist at the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

"I save my vacation time go to Mykyta's tournaments," she said.

For seven months she did not get to see her son much. In July 2000, Kryvonos and his father moved to the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Pompano Beach, Fla., where Jennifer Capriati, Roddick, and Venus and Serena Williams once trained.

Macci remembers the hard-working youngster.

"Mykyta has natural talent and ability," Macci said. "But with boys it's hard to tell how good they'll be. Their game may be technically sound, but there's the X factor. Will they get tall enough? Do they have a good work ethic? Is their heart in it? Those factors matter most."

The Kryvonoses left Macci's academy in February 2001. "There were many players," Kryvonos said. "I needed more personal attention."

Nick Brebenel, a former Romanian national team member, is currently coaching Kryvonos at his private indoor court in Glen Head, N.Y. Brebenel has worked with Andrei Pavel and Max Mirnyi, currently top-30 players on the ATP Tour.

"Mykyta has a big chance to become the next American superstar," said Brebenel, who admires his student's discipline and focus.

And if Kryvonos does get to the final in Kalamazoo on Saturday, he will not have to look at his globe to find the location of his next international tournament. It will be right outside his doorstep at the U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.

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Hope to hear more of this guy.:)
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