From Russia With Love

As Russia continues its love affair with tennis, the young guns take hold on the sport

If you subscribe to the Multiverse theory, allow me to invite you to imagine New York on a warm late August evening in 2018. Inside the Sant Ambroeus, one of the city’s most famous and historic cafés, four women sit down for a light meal.

Julia Apostoli-Salnikova, Irina Zvereva, Tessa Shapovalova, and Marina Marenko make themselves comfortable on the Sant Ambroeus’s posh furniture and scan the menu of the place known for its delicacies. They settle on a round of rosé, freshly-made fruit tarts, and flaky croissants, and amiably exchange pleasantries.

Except for Marina, who was a coach and heavily involved in the sport, they have all represented the Soviet Union in tennis, and in our particular universe, they might have even played together over the years, forming friendships and rivalries.

As the women settle into the evening, the purpose of their presence in New York becomes clearer. Tennis is still a huge part of their lives, but these days, they have moved away from the centre stage and are here as part of the support act.

It’s 26th August 2018, the eve of that year’s edition of the US Open, the final Slam of the year, and one of the most prestigious tournaments in the tennis calendar. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, and Andrey Rublev make up four of the 128 players in the men’s draw about to compete for the top prize. The women are their mothers.

The melodic chatter of Russian never dies away from the table as the four former tennis pros, now mothers of some of the most exciting young talent in the game, catch up on the last 20-odd years of their lives.

Born in Sochi, Russia, Irina Zvereva married a former Soviet Union Davis Cup player, Alexander Zverev Sr., and the couple had two boys, Mischa and Sascha. The older one, Mischa, born in Moscow, lived there with his parents until they relocated to Germany in 1991 when he was four.

He began his tennis education under the tutelage of his father (both his parents are coaches) and quickly developed into a promising player, going deep into several junior Grand Slam tournaments, and in the process, reaching junior world ranking number 3. He would eventually go on to reach number 25 in the senior ATP rankings and enjoy the stellar renown of an accomplished serve-and-volleyer.

Sascha himself was born in Hamburg, 6 years after his family moved to Germany. He identifies himself as German, but, thanks to his parents, speaks fluent Russian. The brothers were close from an early age. When Sascha was in his early teens, they used to practice together.

Mischa, 10 years older and ranked inside the top-100 of best male tennis players in the world, provided Sascha with the kind of playing experience that not many 13-year-olds could boast to have.

The Zverevs are inherently a tennis family—they have travelled the world following the tennis calendar for years, and young Sascha, having closely accompanied his older brother around the tour, benefitted from an early exposure to the tennis culture.

By the time Sascha broke on to the senior circuit, Mischa has long established himself as a hard-working journeyman. When the younger Zverev brother cracked the top-100 at the age of 18, followed by a top-10 ranking two years later at the precocious age of 20, it became clear who the bigger talent in the family was.

The two met for the first time in a professional setting in the third round of Citi Open in Washington in 2018. Sascha defeated his older brother 6:3 7:5 and would go on to win the tournament.

After the match, the 3rd ranked player in the world admitted he had to hold back tears as the moment he had dreamed of finally happened. He long wanted to play Mischa in “like, a Grand Slam final,” he said, and although that wasn’t quite it, he still felt that “It just finally came true”.

His brother, for his part, grabbed his younger sibling by the scruff of the neck and smiled, “Big day, big match”.

Sascha cuts a towering figure, both literally and metaphorically. No longer a boy, he’s a strapping 6 ft 6 of a man who plays a big game from the far end of the court. As with all baseliners, his groundstrokes are powerful off both wings, meeting the ball with slow, measured swings of the racquet that, seemingly inexplicably, make it explode on contact.

It is his backhand, in particular, a shot he credits his mother for, that is arguably the best on tour. Sascha himself certainly thinks so. “When I play well, my forehand is my most powerful shot, the most efficient one. And I certainly have the most powerful backhand of the tour, even if Novak's is a bit steadier,” he once told the Tennis Magazine.

Unlike his serve-and-volleying brother who delights in attacking the net, Sascha’s approach is more in the vein of serve-and-we’ll-see. His aversion to netplay is not something he tries to hide—“I only go to the net to shake the hand or to argue with the umpire,” he once quipped.

After success on the junior tour (he reached world number 1 as a junior), he continued with strong performances on the ATP tour. At the age of 17, he became the youngest player to win a Challenger level tournament (Braunschweig Challenger) since Bernard Tomic in 2009, followed by a semifinal of the International German Open.

Having never won an ATP match before, he had managed to reach the semifinals. The Challenger win and the German Open semifinal meant that his ranking had jumped from 665 to 161. Just two years later, he became the first teenager since Andy Murray to defeat Roger Federer.

When on court, his shaggy flaxen hair is held back by a Nadal-style headband. In moments of frustration or extreme focus, he tends to chew on his necklace, holding it in his teeth with the thousand-yard stare.

While he still travels the tour with his family, he has surrounded himself with the best coaching money can buy—Ivan Lendl and Jez Green, both formerly of Andy Murray’s team, are in his box.

His secret weapon, however, is his most loyal fan—toy poodle Lövik that follows him around the tournaments and, according to Sascha, keeps him grounded.

At the time our story takes place, Sascha Zverev is 21 and about to enter his fourth US Open. He is something of a veteran of the young guard. Coming off the back of an impressive Citi Open win, and followed by a quarterfinal of Canadian Masters, the world number 4 will go on to reach the third round and lose to his compatriot, Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Out of the four, Andrey Rublev is the only one who grew up in Russia—in fact, he still lives in Moscow. He has a keen interest in basketball, and thanks to the influence of his boxer-turned-restaurateur father, boxing. But the love for tennis came from his mother.

Marina Marenko was a coach in the Soviet Union and worked with the iconic Anna Kournikova. She recalls Andrey, 2-years-old a the time, crawling through a bedroom full of toys and picking up a racquet. “I don’t remember how I started playing tennis,” Rublev would say in later years, “Since I was born, I was playing tennis.” His sister, Arina, is also a tennis coach.

Andrey grew up during one of the most successful periods for Russian tennis. While he was choosing the tennis racquet over his other toys, the TV in the room would be buzzing with the oohs and aahs of the crowd gushing over yet another spectacular shot from Marat Safin or Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

With the Big Three yet to arrive at the tennis scene, it was impossible to play the game in Russia in the early 2000s and avoid the shadow of those two.

During his high profile 2017 US Open run, Andrey was questioned about his biggest tennis influences, and while he admitted that, like most Russian tennis-playing teens, he idolised Safin (“It was the first thing I saw. I was watching every match”), he credits Rafa Nadal as his biggest inspiration, “He was my idol. I was buying the same clothes as him, all the new collections. I was trying to copy.”

When Andrey was 16, he partnered up with Sascha Zverev and the pair made the quarterfinals of the 2014 Australian Open Boys’ Doubles draw. In the Singles draw of the same tournament, he again reached the quarterfinals before succumbing to an American junior, coincidentally also of Russian descent, Stefan Kozlov. Sascha Zverev went on to win the tournament.

As if meeting some unspoken set of requirements for an upcoming tennis superstar, Andrey sports a golden crown of blonde hair, is tall, lanky, and you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a member of a boy band. That is until you see him hit his forehand.

He’s an aggressive baseliner with a powerful serve and a well-rounded game that seems to defy his skinny frame. If you ever felt like doubting your coach for telling you that the power of your groundstrokes has little to do with how big your muscles are, take one look at Rublev’s scrawny physique right before he rips the felt off yet another ball with one of his shots.

After winning the Boys’ 2014 French Open, Rublev was invited to train with Nadal at the Guillermo Villas Academy in Mallorca. He spent a week there and had the opportunity to hit with his hero on a couple of occasions.

Rafa recalls practising with Andrey on a particularly cold wintery morning, “I hit him the first ball to serve and he absolutely blistered it, so much so that I thought, this kid is going to kill it.”

Rublev impressed the Spaniard with some ferocious hitting, letting his youthful energy give rise to the occasion. "He was hitting the cover off every ball," said Nadal, "It was obvious he had something very special. He hit the ball very hard for someone his age."

After making waves on the ATP tour for a couple of years (he played his first ATP match in 2015 in Delray Beach and came through the US Open qualifiers the same year at the age of 17), Rublev announced his arrival on to the big stage in 2017.

He made the second rounds of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, won his first ATP 250 tournament in Umag (he made the main draw as a lucky loser having lost in the qualifiers), was met with an abrupt end to his dream-run to the quarterfinals of the US Open (“It’s great to have a new generation coming,” mused Nadal after admonishing a swift, 90-minute spanking), and was the runner up in the Next Gen finals in Milan.

Andrey is often seen with another Russian prospect, Karen Khachanov. The two are good friends and frequently practice and play together in the offseason, having followed the same path from playing in Moscow to training in Barcelona, occasionally partnering up to play doubles in tournaments they are both competing in. In 2014, they took the silver medal in doubles at the Summer Youth Olympics.

Going into the 2018 US Open, Andrey is ranked 38 in the world. Unfortunately, his third appearance at the tournament is going to be far less impressive than the previous one, and on par with the first one—he will lose in the first round to Frenchman Jérémy Chardy.

Julia Apostoli-Salnikova’s story will have her dinner companions nod their heads with compassionate understanding. She was the top-ranked junior from the Soviet Union at the age of 16, but clashes with federation coaches and restrictions on travel meant that she was never allowed to realise her playing potential.

She took a break from tennis to study journalism in Moscow, and only returned to the game for a couple of years flying the Greek flag after marrying a Greek tennis coach, Apostolos Tsitsipas. At the height of her tennis career, she ranked 194 in the world on the WTA tour.

After her playing days were over, her focus switched to her children, the eldest of which, Stefanos, showed great promise from an early age.

Stefanos Tsitsipas was born in Athens, where his mother met her future husband. She was competing in a WTA tournament where he happened to be a line judge and the two hit it off.

The couple has four children, all of whom play tennis, but it was Stefanos who showed unsatiable passion for the game from an early age. Although he first started taking lessons at the age of 6, he recalls his earliest memory of hitting tennis balls with his father when he was 3 years old.

In a bid to further his kids’ tennis careers, Apostolos Tsitsipas decided to study tennis coaching formally at the University of Athens. Although he has always been Stefanos’s primary coach, his wife’s tennis upbringing and first-hand experience of the sacrifice it takes to make it on the tour, meant that she was heavily involved in the creation of Stefanos as a player.

He himself credits his stellar mental game, and by extension his swift rise through the rankings, to his bi-cultural upbringing—the discipline came from his mother, the Mediterranean joy of life from his father.

Stefanos is an avid vlogger. He has a keen interest in photography, videography, literature and is prone to occasional bouts of philosophy-tinted social commentary (given his stature as a tennis player, his Twitter account is something to behold for several reasons).

He owns a travel-themed YouTube channel with over 169,000 subscribers, and the very nature of his job means that he can frequently record videos from new and exciting locations that add to the perceived poshness and glamour of tennis life.

A word of advice for any potential viewers of the young man’s creations—his channel is not for the bitter and the dissatisfied with their own life. A glance at his videos reveals Stefanos playing tennis in some of the most picturesque places in the world, sunning himself on the golden Caribbean beaches or go-karting in Monte-Carlo, all shot with professional-grade equipment, all the while advocating simplicity in life and minimalism.

A particular video, weirdly reminiscent of something akin to a Scientology recruitment clip, shows Stefanos seemingly meditating in the middle of the Saharan desert while his voiceover musings recommend that you let go of what people think of you and travel more.

Still, because of, or perhaps despite, his youthful innocence, Stefanos’s efforts are anything but impersonal—his videos are an interesting and pleasant insight into who he is as a person.

Hid under a flock of golden hair, his eyes sparkle with life and genuine curiosity of the world. With a smile glued to his face, we follow Stefanos on a young man’s journey, discovering the world with a joyful wonder of a puppy stepping out into the garden for the first time.

The ebullient off-court persona of Stefanos the travel vlogger is completely at odds with Stefanos the tennis player. With racquet in hand and his broad shoulders perched atop a 6 ft 4 frame, he cuts a menacing figure.

By the time US Open 2018 rolls around, he is already a major tournament draw, and when he steps out on the court, against the backdrop of packed tennis stands, his usually amiable facial features harden, his focus narrowing.

Ever the perfectionist, despite his cool and composed demeanour, Stefanos is prone to violent self-criticism. When dissatisfied with his performances, he frequently shouts in anger, whacks his surroundings with his racquet and argues with umpires (admittedly, all players do to an extent including such legends of the game as the ever-laid-back Roger Federer).

In later years, Stefanos will, however, go on to such extremes as repeatedly smacking himself in the face after a dismal passage of play and giving his player’s chair a particularly vigorous whacking with the racquet, accidentally catching his father on the arm. To further his evident embarrassment, his mother will come down from the stands to give her son a stern telling-off in the middle of the match.

Still, his on-court antics should not detract from the quality of the player that he is. Stefanos is a well rounded all-court specialist with a devastating forehand and one of the steadiest one-handed backhands in the game which he uses to finish off points with great success. Although he is considered an aggressive baseliner, he is something of a rarity on the tour due to his old-school proclivity to attacking the net.

Going into the 2018 edition of the US Open, Stefanos ranks 15 in the world, and during his swift rise through the tennis ladder, he had already claimed several high-profile, top-10 scalps.

Former ITF number 1 junior, he blazed through the first half of 2018 reaching 3 ATP semifinals and 2 finals, including a dream run at the Canadian Open where he became the youngest player to take down four top-10 players in a single event (number 8 Dominic Thiem, number 10 Novak Djokovic, number 3 Sascha Zverev, and number 6 Kevin Anderson) but lost in the final to Rafa Nadal.

In the process, he had climbed 76 spots on the ranking ladder advancing from 91 to 15 in a little over 6 months.

By March next year, he will become the youngest player to crack top-10 in the ATP history, and will eventually reach number 5 at the age of 20. For Stefanos, the sky is the limit.

In his first US Open, he will reach the second round of the tournament and lose to a fellow Next Gen player Daniil Medvedev. Citing fatigue as the reason for his loss, he will quickly bounce back and shortly after go on to claim his maiden ATP title in Stockholm.

Like Irina Zvereva and Julia Apostoli-Salnikova, Tessa Shapovalova represented Russia in tennis on a national level, but when the Soviet Union started to collapse, she left the country with her husband, Viktor Shapovalov, and moved to Israel.

She eventually became a tennis coach, and after the pair settled down in Tel Aviv, they had two boys, Denis and Evgeniy. When Denis was 9 months old, the family moved again, this time to Canada. He first picked up a racquet at the age of 5, and soon after, it proved impossible to pull him off the court.

He began his journey on the leafy courts of Richmond Hill Country Club in Ontario where Tessa worked as a coach, but when it proved difficult to guarantee Denis’s playing time at the club, she left and opened her own academy in Vaughan, named TessaTennis. The idea was to provide him with a base for practice and uninterrupted development as a tennis player.

From an early age, Denis showed an unspoiled appetite for the game. At 6 ft, he is relatively short compared to his peers, but while he doesn’t have the strength of the likes of Zverev or Tsitsipas, what he lacks in muscle power, he more than makes up for in athleticism.

His loose-limbed shots whiplash the ball with ease off both wings as he scampers around the court with a ruffled mane of straw-blonde hair and a grin permanently slapped on to his face. He is particularly known for his jumping backhand—a shot that defies logic, and quite frankly gravity, and earned him the moniker “Air Shapo”.

Out of the four boys, Denis is the only one not to reach the top spot in the ITF Junior rankings, but he did claim number 2. This does not take away from his achievements—a high junior ranking is not always an indication of future success, and on the flip side, a low ranking does not mean that a player will end up a failure.

If in December 2002 you were asked to pick a player most likely to become the next tennis superstar, you could do worse than to pick a 145th placed Spaniard from Mallorca.

In 2016, when Denis was 17 years old, he made the semifinals of the Junior French Open. The following month he won the Junior Wimbledon defeating the top seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the semifinal.

Across 2016, he had captured 3 Futures titles and was awarded 2 wild cards into ATP main draw events. That year, at the Rogers Cup, he had picked up his first ATP level win against Nick Kyrgios.

At the beginning of 2017, Denis was selected to represent Canada in a Davis Cup tie against Great Britain. What should have been a stepping-stone in the young man’s career, turned out to be a significant setback.

At the beginning of the third set of his tie against Kyle Edmund, Denis, frustrated by poor serving, angrily smashed the ball into the crowd. To Shapovalov’s visible horror, the ball struck the chair umpire, Arnaud Gabas, in the eye.

He was immediately disqualified for unsportsmanlike behaviour, and as a result, Canada lost the tie 2:3. The shame of allowing his juvenile outburst to throw the match, combined with the guilt of causing a potentially life-changing injury, hit Denis hard. “I skipped the next tournament. I didn't want to get out of bed,” he later recalled. “It was very tough at the time, it is still always in the back of my head in everyday life.”

Luckily, things turned out all right for both Gabas and Shapovalov. According to Denis, they became good friends since the incident. “He is an extremely nice guy. He has really helped me get through it because he could have been mean about it—but he is a great gentleman, a great guy,” he later said about the episode.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining. The incident spurred Denis on to improve as a player and a person. “It has helped me mature as a person. It has helped my game on the court—I stay much more calm, just knowing what could happen if I lose my temper again.”

A month later he was back on court and captured his fourth Futures title. Two weeks after that, he defeated his friend Félix Auger-Aliassime along the way to his first Challenger level title in Drummondville.

For a short while, he had enjoyed the honour of being the youngest Canadian to win a Challenger title at the age of 18. Later that year, Félix won his aged 16.

His first significant breakthrough came in August in the Rogers Cup. He defeated Juan Martín del Potro, at the time ranked 31, followed by world number 2 Rafa Nadal. His run was stopped in the semifinals by Sascha Zverev.

Shapovalov’s strong 2017 and 2018 performances mean that he ranks 28 by the time his second US Open begins. He enters the draw with the same seeding.

On the first day of the tournament, a sweltering Monday in the middle of a typical New York heatwave, he will again face his good friend Félix Auger-Aliassime. The boys will split the first two sets after which Félix, who suffers from tachycardia, will begin experiencing dizziness and dangerously elevated heart rate.

He will try to continue but ultimately be forced to retire. In a heart-tugging scene, Denis will take his tearful friend into a tight embrace and compassionately encourage the crowd’s applause. He will carry on in the tournament to make the round of 32.

Julia Apostoli-Salnikova, Irina Zvereva, Tessa Shapovalova, and Marina Marenko finish their meal over a round of cappuccinos. Serious players in their own rights, they have stepped away from the game to nurture the next generation of tennis players.

They have passed down their experience, values and work ethic, and kept a watchful eye over their sons’ journeys to make sure that they avoid the pitfalls they have themselves fell victim to.

All four women hail from the Soviet Union, but the tumultuousness of life meant that their paths split. Although they’ve raised their children in four different countries, the boys all speak their mothers’ native language, and the Russian influences on their lives linger on.

Despite their young age, they have been around the tour for years. They have won titles and scored great victories. Collectively, they have beaten all of the Big Three a few times over.

While it remains to be seen whether the boys have enough firepower and mental resilience to topple the established order, there is no doubt that along with the other top-20 regulars such as Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, and the stream of Russian-originated talent that follows in their footsteps, such as Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Alexei Popyrin and Alexander Bublik, they herald the return of the Golden Age for Russian tennis.

As the women say their goodbyes, the fading August sun of a hot New York day will slowly give way to a starry, humid night. Tomorrow, the boys will all step out on to the blue courts of Flushing Meadows, and their journeys will continue.