Saturday, August 23The man without a land
By Greg GarberESPN.com
NEW YORK -- He has no full-time coach. He's persona non grata in his native Russia, and although he has lived in California for eight years he has been unable to gain U.S. citizenship. He played his second-round match here in the anonymity of Court 6, so there was no television feed or detailed post-match statistics.
|Dmitry Tursunov is the only man left in the draw who's never lost a Grand Slam match (he's 2-0).|
Dmitry Tursunov is a nowhere man, between coaches and countries and far outside the realm of elites in professional tennis.
But as dislocated and disjointed as his 20 years have been, he is the only man left in this U.S. Open draw who can say he has never, ever lost a Grand Slam match.
Tursunov's muscular 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory over John van Lottum on Friday thrusts him into the third round. Today's win followed a rollicking five-setter in the first round over Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time Grand Slam champion. Which makes the 20-year-old with piercing blue eyes and a riot of blond curls a flawless 2-0 in the majors -- in the first two five-set matches of his life.
||Me and Andy are really very similar. We are the same age and in the beginning we played a lot of the same tournaments. But you can't have that kind of wistful thinking and say 'I wish I had Andy Roddick's support system and wild cards from the USTA and wish I didn't have all the injuries.' ”
||— Dmitry Tursunov
Which brings us to this tantalizing thought: if Tursunov had been born in Omaha, Neb., as Andy Roddick was, and Roddick had been born in Moscow, they could credibly each find themselves in the other's shoes. Given all the advantages Roddick has received, Tursunov, ranked No. 174 in the world, could conceivably be in Roddick's No. 4 spot. And if Roddick, who is nearly four months older, had suffered the neglect, bad medical advice and overwhelming lack of support that has dogged Tursunov? He might well be out of tennis.
"Me and Andy are really very similar," Tursunov said later. "We are the same age and in the beginning we played a lot of the same tournaments. But you can't have that kind of wistful thinking and say 'I wish I had Andy Roddick's support system and wild cards from the USTA and wish I didn't have all the injuries.'
"Sometimes I think about things like that, but you can't worry about things you can't control. I've spent too much time worrying in my life. Everybody has their own destination, their own route. This is mine."
Tursunov was standing in a hallway under Arthur Ashe Stadium as he spoke, winding up more than 75 minutes of interviews -- a personal best, or worst, by most players' standards. Standing, because sitting causes his back to stiffen up. Frankly, he's lucky to be standing at all.
He was 12 years old when he and his father packed up for a one-month trial in California. Coach Vitaly Gorin liked what he saw, so Tursunov stayed and his father got back on the plane.
Five years later, two months after his 18th birthday, Tursunov arrived in Memphis riding a 15-match winning streak in Futures and Challenger events. He proceeded to win the first three matches of his ATP career. He stunned Kevin Kim, Greg Rusedski (a U.S. Open finalist in 1997) and George Bastl before losing to Mark Philippoussis in the quarterfinals. He didn't play another ATP match for two years.
After Memphis the pain in his back forced him to take off two months. A series of doctors said he had a bulging disc, though so do most tennis players. Tursunov came back and suffered a stress fracture in his leg, which sidelined him again. Even when the leg healed, the back pain persisted. Specialists couldn't help him. Finally, because "I couldn't walk straight," he tried a Sacramento doctor, who ordered another round of tests. The startling result: not one, but two fractures in his L-2 vertebrae.
"It was definitely frustrating -- it cost me a lot of time and money," Tursunov said. "But I was very relieved when they found the fractures. You start to question yourself. I started to relax and focus and my game started to come around."
He has played in 16 events this year, 13 of them Challengers in places like Waikoloa, Joplin, Sassuolo and Andorra. He qualified to play in two ATP events, San Jose and Scottsdale, but lost first to Mardy Fish then Alex Corretja in the first rounds.
Two weeks ago, he entered the Bronx Challenger and won his first four matches -- over non-househld names such as Giovanni Lapentti, Giles Muller, Paul Goldstein and Julien Varlet. In the final, he ran into 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovich, who stunned defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in the first round at Wimbledon.
"I have nightmares about that guy," Tursunov said.
Small wonder -- Karlovic beat him 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
Both Tursunov and Karlovic are into the third round here; the Croatian beat Hicham Arazi, each of his winning sets ended in a tiebreaker. Their success here underlines the daunting depth of men's tennis.
And yet, believe it or not, Tursunov's game is not far from top-10 quality. At 6-feet, 175 pounds, he is powerfully built and his game follows suit.
"He's got a lot of power," observed Paul Annacone, most recently the coach of Pete Sampras. "He's got a huge serve and huge groundstrokes, I just think he needs to learn how to play points a little better. Strategy."
Annacone was watching Tursunov intently as he pounded van Lottum. Perhaps he was looking for his next thoroughbred.
"He's not really saying anything that I haven't been hearing," said Tursunov, who has been getting some advice from coach Jose Higueras (who also coached Sampras for a while). "I need to work on my volleys and try to get to net more often. I feel like my game is too one-dimensional."
If he can blast 30 aces, as he did against van Lottum -- the second-highest single-match total of the tournament -- a second dimension won't be necessary.
Tursunov is engaging and speaks flawless Californiaesque English -- there is only the faintest hint of a "d" at the beginning of words like then and tough. When he was asked by reporters what these two U.S. Open wins meant to him, he smiled.
"It gets me into the room with you guys" he said.
Now, that he's healthy, the biggest issue he faces is securing his U.S. citizenship. He has a P-Visa, granted because he is a professional tennis player, but he wants to make his life here permanent. He has gone through all the proper channels but, he says, events of Sept. 11 and the Bush administration's uneasy relationship with Russian diplomats have left him stymied.
"I'd like to say that it will happen, but I've learned not to get too far ahead of myself. I know that these results will definitely not hurt my chances."
Considering his long journey, he is happy -- make that ecstatic -- still to be here at the National Tennis Center. How ecstatic? After his 3-hour, 21-minute match with van Lottum, Tursunov actually went out for another hour to hit practice balls.
"I try not to treat these matches any different than the matches I've played before," he said. "I think that's partially why I'm doing pretty well, is because I've been able to trick myself into thinking that they are just another match, they're not Grand Slams."
He actually has a fair chance against Xavier Malisse in the third round. The Belgian is notoriously inconsistent. A victory would send Tursunov into the round of 16 against the No. 4-seeded Roddick, the man he might have been if not for the quirky randomness of life. The man he may yet be.
"It's pretty cool, really," Tursunov allowed, after his audience had dwindled to one. "I honestly didn't expect to get this far.
"I think everyone has sweet and sour moments. I would have preferred not to get injured, but you can't be too disappointed by how your life turns out -- it's your life. It could always be worse, I tell myself.
"I'm trying to take it as a positive experience."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.