Dmitry Tursunov likes to work hard, because being able to work hard means he’s not injured.
The Russian, who has lived in America since the age of 12, has had a curious rise up the rankings this year paralleling American James Blake — two sporadic players with plenty of weapons who could never get over the hump to win big matches — until this year.
There was no indication that Tursunov’s poor claycourt performance was going to turn around this year after he went 1-6 on clay leading to the French Open — before beating Jiri Novak and Tim Henman, then putting a scare into dirt machine David Nalbandian, coming up short in five sets.
Still, when the Russia vs. U.S. Davis Cup semifinals rolled around in September, on clay, there was still no indication that he would play a key role.
I spoke with Tursunov at the US Open right after Russian Davis Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev had named Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko as the singles stars, with no initial mention of Tursunov.
“Am I in?” asked the blonde Cali-Russian after I told him of the announcement, looking a little startled but quickly maintaining his composure. “To me it doesn’t really matter [to not be announced among the starting line-up], it just depends how can I fit into the team and how can I help. If Safin is already playing better on clay, why do I need to be around picking my nose — my ego is already stroked up, my goal is to just get in there and help out and see if there is a way we can get through the semifinals.”
Still not convinced of his claycourt prowess at that time, Tursunov was nonetheless, like Rafael Nadal on grass, eager to step to the challenge of improving.
“Anything can happen once a year, as it did on clay,” Tursunov said of his brief French Open heroics. “Generally it’s probably my least-favorite surface, although after hardcourts the most amount of tournaments are played on clay. So I have to learn how to play on it sooner or later, if I want to keep up my ranking.”
In Russia at the Davis Cup semifinals, Tursunov was inserted in the doubles with Mikhail Youzhny, and was the obvious weak link in a straight-set loss to the Bryan brothers. That made it an even bigger shock the next day when Tarpischev decided, apparently due to fatigue and illness in his line-up, to put Tursunov into the potential deciding match Sunday against Andy Roddick.
“It was only (on Sunday) morning I found out I was going to play,” Tursunov said after beating Roddick. “I didn’t have much time to prepare, to work out a strategy. I had some ideas of how to play him…but in the fifth set I had no strategy, just tried to fight back.”
No strategy was enough on clay to overcome Roddick, who finally succumbed 17-15 in the fifth in the match-up of players uncomfortable yet improving on clay.
Tursunov is the same age as Roddick, but a year younger than Federer.
“Federer is one year older, but I think that definitely one year from now I will be lucky if I can play like him,” laughed Tursunov on his progress related to his age. But age has little to do with progress when you can’t stay uninjured for stretches at a time.
Tursunov turned pro in 2000, promptly suffering a broken leg in January, missing four months. In 2001 he suffered a back injury, missing two months, and upon returning suffered a stress fracture in his leg. The back pain continued and he was eventually diagnosed with two fractures in his vertebrae, missing nine months. Following the 2004 US Open he was out for seven months with a broken vertebrae from a boating accident.
“I don’t have to do any maintenance-type exercises with my back because it is a fracture, but I do general exercises to stay and shape and stay ahead of those injuries,” Tursunov said, offering his opinion as to why players sometimes pull out of tournaments when they’re not injured. “Sometimes you have to not play for a little bit to make sure you don’t aggravate things. It’s a problem a lot of times that people pull out of tournaments and it is questionable why they did, but at the same time the schedule is kind of grinding and you have to travel and changing your body clock all the time. Especially if you win two of three matches in a row and depending on the weather, there’s a lot of issues that can effect players pulling out.”
If his ironman-like performances of late are any indication, the back is just fine. After the US Open Tursunov played the claycourt event in Bucharest as a tune-up before heading to Russia for the following week’s Davis Cup. Losing the doubles, then the next day besting Roddick 17-15 in the fifth, he immediately headed to Mumbai where he won his first career ATP title, winning four consecutive three-setters in the process.
“Tursunov has become a popular name with the fans and he has surprised everybody with his physical resilience in taking the title despite the hard weeks he has had coming into the tournament,” wrote Mumbai tournament organizer Mahesh Bhupathi in the India Times.
The book on Tursunov used to be keep it in the court and he’ll make an error. Or hit a winner. The former over the latter. A willing media interviewee and a popular blogger on the ATP website, Tursunov bristles only at characterizations of his game — is he a sporadic player with weapons and a go-for-it attitude who is now making a conscious effort to be more consistent? Or is his improvement just a natural progression?
“That’s kind of a generalized observation — that’s like saying that [Nikolay] Davydenko is very consistent but doesn’t have a lot of weapons,” Tursunov says. “I guess it depends on the style of play. I am an aggressive player and I’m going to go for a lot of shots, and include a lot of errors. You don’t want to be too aggressive to the point where you’re missing every singe shot, and if you go back to playing a defensive game, that is also going to be a negative. You try to be aggressive, you have to find your moment to be aggressive and that is a hard things to do. It is just a progress, and so far it has been positive.”
It doesn’t take a nuclear engineer to figure out that more balls inside the court than out are going to win you tennis matches on clay. In this case it took the son of a nuclear engineer to figure out that less pulling the trigger, and more balls in the court, can keep you in a five-set match with Nalbandian, beat Roddick in five, and in a matter of months convert you from claycourt zero to claycourt hero.
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