By Krystle Russin
“There aren’t any questions that are taboo,” Dmitry Tursunov says. The fourth-ranked man in Russian tennis, No. 26 in the world, is talking about questions for this interview, but the response represents his overall demeanor.
“I never really wanted to be like anybody,” Tursunov begins, invoking the same line Elvis Presley once told record labels. “Of course!” he jokes, when I point that out. “We have the same hip movement.”
He is serious though. “I used to get upset if somebody says something bad,” he says, describing the tennis media. “To be honest, I’m not concerned with it anymore. When you meet somebody for only a fraction of time, a few minutes, they cannot form a real and true opinion about you. You only see a part of me. Obviously, if they form some sort of opinion about you, it’s not going to be a full opinion.”
Tursunov, Mr. December in the 2009 ATP Men of Tennis calendar, has just checked into his Miami hotel the weekend before the Sony Ericsson Open. It is late in the evening. He wants to go out and experience the city later on — it is Saturday night in South Beach, after all — but speaks a little about his beginnings before he meets up with a friend around 10 p.m.
His father Igor, then an engineer at a nuclear technology institute, placed him in tennis lessons at the young age of 5, only not in the sense of how American families send children off to tennis lessons. Tursunov had a training schedule.
“I practiced a few hours a day. My dad realized fairly early that I had a lot of potential. A lot of people criticize him for basically choosing that career for me. He understood that I didn’t have many options to make money and since he really liked tennis, he decided that I was to be a tennis player. It just happened that I was naturally good at it.”
Though he admits that “there’s a myriad of other things I would’ve enjoyed doing,” he doesn’t remember whether he enjoyed the tennis regimen or had just grown accustomed to it. “Maybe I enjoyed it when I was little. It’s kind of hard to remember. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a doubt. The fact that I had practice and was to be a tennis pro was like the fact that you have two legs. You’re just born with two legs, and I was born to play tennis.”
“Dima,” as he is known to fans, moved to the United States from Moscow at 12, continuing his training as he grew more talented at the sport. He was only supposed to be given a one-month trial from coach Vitaly Gorin, but impressed him so much that he is still coaching him to this day at the Gorin Tennis Academy.
What came next was a side interest in music. When Gorin gave the pre-teen spending allowance most kids would spend at the mall, Tursunov purchased a sound system — an enormous boom box that would make Back to the Future’s Marty McFly proud.
“CDs usually have one or two good songs and everything else is junk. I bought some blank tapes and recorded the music and made some compilations. I was really just doing it for myself. Some friends who were into electronic music liked them and started asking me to put some songs together,” he explains.
The compilations he arranges have earned a following of their own. One-hour long dance, house, electro and trance mixes more likely to be heard at trendy clubs than on the tennis courts, he uses them for his long training sessions and set up a web site for fans to hear them too. He uses beats from club artists incorporated with new interpretations of famous songs, like a Billie Jean remix by an obscure Russian DJ.
“Basically, it’s kind of trial and error. I don’t have one source where I find them,” Tursunov says. “When Napster was alive, that’s when I started getting some of the songs. Usually, when you search one up, you find 20 different songs. You find a different artist and look up that artist. I bought some of those songs on web sites that specialize in electronic music. You hear a friend play songs and burn some of the stuff from them.”
As usual, he has brought his iPod mixes with him to Florida for tomorrow’s practice. He is looking forward to playing at Sony Ericsson and says although a player’s results are linked to training, there is quite a bit of luck involved. “I don’t think it ever happens that a player plays five or six matches really well. Some days you’ll play well. Some days you won’t. Some players suit your game style, and some are just awkward and uncomfortable and throw you off your game,” he says.
“Look at how Andy Murray got to the final at the US Open. He had a couple of really tight matches in the first two rounds that he almost lost, and then he ends up in the final.”
It’s time to hit the town. Tursunov receives a phone call from his friend, who is impatiently waiting to use the spare time off court in Miami, and asks that the conversation be continued tomorrow.
The next day, he spends the afternoon at the court, followed by a massage. With his strawberry blond hair, 6-foot-1 frame and knack for wearing tight jeans and T-shirts with phrases like “good kisser,” he comes off differently than the ESPN Tursunov. The camera doesn’t do him justice. On TV, he is the man who, in what he says were his best matches, helped Russia win the Davis Cup in 2006 and advance to the semifinals in 2007. In person, he resembles actor Ryan Phillipe.
He begins speaking about the often-covered race to be No. 1. Why focus on numbers, he asks, when it is better to improve your on court skills? “You have to reach for something more concrete and something you have more control over. Saying, ‘I want to be No. 1,’ isn’t going to make it happen, no matter how many days I sit and think about it.”
A fan of reading classic novelists in their original Russian, he was such a good high school student that teachers questioned why he would ever want to play sports. His father worked out a plan with his school to make tennis training the first priority and school an afterthought on the schedule. “I think it’s a good thing that my dad had enough brains to realize that I was capable of achieving whatever I was set out to achieve,” Tursunov says.
He talks about turning professional in 2000, breaking the Top 100 three years later and his five career ATP titles.
“I’m definitely happy. I have a good life. I can’t complain. It’s hard for me to criticize my dad’s actions, and I’m definitely thankful, but again, being a bit of a cynic, I can see how it might’ve not worked out. There are a lot of people who helped me along the way: my dad, Vitaly Gorin, his father Michael Gorin, who is also my manager. But not everyone ends up in my situation, so I’m definitely lucky.”
Most recently, Tursunov was fined $3,000 at the Australian Open for racket abuse and some f-words. It wasn’t the first time, but like his good days, where he never hides his humor and infectious smile, he doesn’t like to hide his feelings.
“I’ve been fined before for cussing, breaking rackets and being obnoxious. I don’t think that that makes me a bad guy. When I’m on the court, I’m not really worried about what people are gonna think of me. If I’m really pissed off, I’m gonna come off as an ass because I’m pissed.”
Other players try to follow traditional tennis etiquette. Tursunov’s goal is making tennis fun for the masses. He was the “ATP resident blogger” for a year, where he blogged about random, daily life dilemmas like traffic, breakfast and discovering his coach’s secret rubber ducky. Last August, he took over an Equinox class in Manhattan, teaching gym members how to train like a professional tennis player.
He commutes between his tennis base of Roseville, a Sacramento suburb, Moscow, Napa and the San Francisco Bay area, anywhere but the beach, he says, thanks to getting “sunburned really easily.” In between that, he travels the world for his tennis matches most of the year. If it weren’t for his busy schedule, he would be working on his other love, cars.
“I read about them and it would’ve been fun to do something like Overhaulin’ on the Discovery Channel, taking really old cars and making them new and shiny. Obviously, I can’t be doing that while on the road,” he says.
Now Sunday evening, Tursunov has returned from dinner with a few friends. Or rather, co-workers from the world of tennis, as he “uses the term ‘friends’ loosely nowadays. In a lifetime, you probably have a few true friends.”
He hangs out not with players but his trainer most days, with whom he sometimes reenacts downloaded Family Guy episodes.
The practices he worked on with his coach earlier in the afternoon are simply “technical,” Tursunov says.
“At this age, it’s really hard to change my forehand or backhand drastically, so the technical things we work on are not more than little tweaks here and there. Maybe my wrist is doing something weird on a serve or groundstroke. I’m not a natural volleyer. I volley pretty well in practice, but in matches, if anything is going to break down, it will be shots I don’t feel too comfortable with, so that’s what we’ll correct. Mostly though, it’s how to use your weapons to your advantage. It’s 90 percent tactics and how to apply it to your game, and maybe 10 percent technique.”
He talks about where he was growing up and where he is now. Regardless of what people have to say about his father’s decision to train him so young, Tursunov loves tennis. He enjoys improving his game.
“It’s not about chasing money. The last couple years have really been the first couple of years where I really enjoyed just working on my game. I realized there’s a lot more to tennis than just hitting the ball. I’m not extremely rich, but I’m not extremely poor either. If I had an injury and had to stop today, I wouldn’t be in that bad of a situation.”
“Right now, I’m more interested in improving my game because I’ve lost a lot of important matches in the past that I should’ve won, so I’m trying to prevent that. You lose your mind a little bit. You get angry. You get nervous. You choke. In my case, that’s what’s limiting me. With every match, you gain a little experience, and it’s quite possible that losing and learning from one match can help you win one down the road.”
He doesn’t know if he would want his own children to play tennis. Tursunov says he would allow them to choose their own paths in life.
“If they want to play tennis? Great. If they don’t, they can choose something else. Tennis is a great sport, but there’s a lot more things than tennis. It would be wonderful to do anything where their interests lie. I hope that if I have kids, they will do whatever they want to do, not whatever they have to do, and most importantly, I hope I will be in the position to provide them with that opportunity.”
Sports figures have dual images, he says: a public stage character and a private persona. Eventually, one gives in. Tursunov would rather be himself at all times.
“It’s not really you. You’re basically trying to make a facade for the people. You’re never gonna please everybody, anyway. Somebody’s gonna say, ‘This guy’s a dick.’ Somebody’s gonna say, ‘He’s a nice guy.’ If they catch you at a bad time and you snap and say something bad, you’re not being polite, they form an opinion of you basically being an ass. When you’re in a happy mood, you’re the greatest guy out there. It’s kind of a difficult time to be in the public eye because everything you do is under a microscope.”
Asked what he likes to wear off court, he jokingly confesses, “Stockings and a garter belt! Actually, I’d prefer if a girl wear that.” In reality, Tursunov can be found shopping at Diesel, a store he believes has the right amount of trendy and casual, slightly upscale without going too conservative. “I don’t dress too formal because obviously, it’s kind of hard to travel with a suit!”
Joking aside, his style has worked with women. After years of focusing on tennis, he has finally found time to date.
“I am…sort of…Well, yes. I am dating. I better say yes, otherwise I will get in trouble!” he explained. “I have no idea how I got into this. I definitely wasn’t looking for a relationship. I got suckered into it.”
Tursunov says of the girl he is seeing, who shall remain anonymous, “It’s a very interesting relationship. She’s sacrificing a lot more than I am for the relationship and so that’s why it’s working out because otherwise, it probably wouldn’t work.”
And in that regard, Tursunov really is like the modern tennis world’s Elvis. He loves fashionable clothes, fast cars and the West Coast lifestyle. He is smart, handsome, unafraid to speak his mind and refuses to listen to anyone’s doubts about himself. No, he doesn’t try hard to be cool. He just is.
Krystle Russin is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has covered business and politics for online and print publications, including PurePolitics.com. She also blogs for Nightly Business Report on PBS.
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