By Krystle Russin
“I came back from eating Turkish food with my friends and coach. I am sorry I am late,” Marsel Ilhan says, walking into the Waldorf Astoria’s grand chandeliered lobby. In jeans and a white Abercrombie hoodie, he doesn’t look different than a young neighbor boy next door, doe-eyed, tall and lanky. But this young man, not your average 22-year old, has made tennis history today by becoming Turkey’s first player to make the second round of a Grand Slam.
In his match today against Christophe Rochus, it could have gone either way. At the last moment, he pulled through, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, believing the “last set was the most difficult. But it is all difficult.”
Ilhan trains seven days a week, most of the day, taking breaks only to eat and rest a little in evenings. He moved to Istanbul from Uzbekistan in 2004, sponsored by Kia Motors Turkey. He began working with former professional player Can Uner and saw his results finally paying off three years later in 2007, jumping 1,000 spots — from a 1,320 ranking to a new standing of No. 320 — difficult enough for anyone, of course. And more difficult for a player training outside tennis powerhouse nations like the United States. He is now Turkey’s number one player and its first ever to participate at Wimbledon.
This year is his second time at the U.S. Open and he wants to make the most of it. Last year, Ilhan only stayed for three days. “I have visited Times Square and Chinatown. I like Chinese food. I rode the subway,” he says. “I have been to parts of Manhattan and Queens.” He apologizes for not being as fluent as he would like in English, speaking just Russian and Turkish. He seems to do fine communicating when he really wants to do it. Ilhan describes his tennis routine as being hard work but a symbol of dedication working its magic.
Ilhan doesn’t know what to anticipate for Wednesday’s match with American John Isner, who is recovering from a bout with mono this past summer. In Istanbul, he lives in an apartment with his mother. He has only earned $97,000 in career earnings, compared to Roger Federer’s millions upon millions, yet he displays passion. Ilhan “wants to play well. I love tennis,” he says, sipping a Coke in the restaurant now. He stops the waiter to ask for more ice in his drink. The soda is room temperature now, finishes and returns back downstairs after changing his clothes into a pair of khaki shorts. It has been a long day.
Continuing, he talks about his life in the few hours he has to himself. Tonight, he wants to call his mother over Skype for two hours sometime around 2:00 a.m. He wants to check his e-mail and Facebook and watch YouTube videos. The Internet is his best friend most days, traveling so often, being away from home. A fan of clubgoing, he likes house music and counts his favorite singer as Enrique Iglesias, then adds, “My favorite tennis player is Andre Agassi.”
Over the rest of the evening, he returns several times with his laptop, reading media reports about today’s game, downloading photos from the match and looking at pictures taken by his friends at the stadium. For a relatively unknown player, the public was wildly impressed — he spent a great amount of the post-match time signing autographs for children and tennis fans alike. The most exciting part, Ilhan says, was being interviewed by BBC. He slowly appears to be taking in the importance of what he is doing here in New York but it wasn’t until he spoke with international media that he fully understood. Still, “I am not famous,” he says. “I am playing. It was my dream to be here to play in the second round and be doing this. But I am not famous.” He is humble and respectful of Turkish customs, describing how he doesn’t like to drink, do drugs or eat pork. He will “eat anything, but not pork.”
Tomorrow, Ilhan is concerned with ironing his clothes. “My coach made the room a mess. There are things everywhere. I have to clean it,” he explains. He likes order in his life, personally right down to the small things, to do well in the rest of it. If all works out well, he may iron himself into the third round, having already done the unexpected.
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