Two tennis stories that began in Russia will continue in New York on Friday, as Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev take turns trying to reach the United States Open men’s final.
Both are trilingual and 6-foot-6, which was once considered too tall for a great tennis player. Both clearly have the power and potential to win multiple Grand Slam titles, and this title, for a change, is there for the younger generation’s taking, with none of the Big Three — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal — blocking the path.
Zverev, 23, the German son of Russian professional tennis players, will face Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, 29, in the first semifinal. Medvedev, 24, raised in Moscow but now married and based in Monaco, will then take on Dominic Thiem, 27, the big-swinging Austrian who is the highest seed remaining, at No. 2. None of the four has won a Grand Slam tournament.
“The most important thing is to not get ahead of yourself,” said Gilles Cervara, Medvedev’s coach. “We all know what it means to not have those three guys in the tournament, but we cannot stay fixated on it. It’s all about going little by little, step by step.”
It took many steps to bring Medvedev and Zverev to the brink, and in both cases, leaving Russia was a big one.
Zverev’s parents, Alexander Sr. and Irina, met in Sochi, the Russian resort city and tennis hub on the Black Sea. It was also the home of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian man to be ranked No. 1 in the world in tennis, and it was where Maria Sharapova, a future women’s No. 1, spent her very early childhood before leaving with her father, Yuri, for the tennis academies of Florida, with less than $1,000 in cash in Yuri’s pocket.
Alexander Sr., an attacking player, came of age in the Soviet Union, where tennis was long viewed suspiciously as a bourgeois pursuit and where leading players often found it difficult to leave for international events. Stars did emerge, like Olga Morozova and Alex Metreveli, who both reached Wimbledon finals in the 1970s, and later Natasha Zvereva and Andrei Chesnokov, who both broke into the top 10 in singles and had an ongoing and risky tussle with Soviet authorities over how much of their prize money they could retain.
Alexander Sr. peaked at No. 175, and Irina, seven years younger, peaked at No. 380. Their oldest son, Mischa, was born in Russia, but the family moved to Germany in 1991, and Alexander, nicknamed Sascha, was born in Hamburg in 1997.
The brothers became professionals with radically different playing styles. Mischa, ranked as high as 25 in 2017, is one of the few pure serve-and-volleyers on tour, while Alexander, who has been ranked as high as No. 3, is a more conventional attacking baseliner with a huge serve and a potent, fluid two-handed backhand.
“I’m not surprised at all the Zverevs raised two top players,” Kafelnikov said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “They knew what they had faced in Russia before, and they knew exactly what they wanted to give to their kids. They wanted the kids to be professional tennis players and be successful. Mischa is playing a little bit like his father’s style. Sascha is quite a bit different, with the big groundstrokes.”
Kafelnikov, 46, was the most successful Russian player after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. He initially scrambled to find training bases and stability with his coach, Anatoly Lepeshin, a former head of the Soviet junior program who once worked with Alexander Sr. But while other talented Russian players were unable to find the funding to continue their careers, Kafelnikov, a smooth and flat-hitting baseliner, persevered to become the first Russian man to win a Grand Slam singles title, at the French Open in 1996, and then won the Australian Open in 1999.
He later joined forces with Marat Safin, Russia’s other big post-breakup men’s tennis star, to win the Davis Cup for the first time for Russia in 2002.
Safin, a swashbuckling figure who broke rackets almost as often as he broke serve, also reached No. 1 and won two Grand Slam singles titles: the 2000 U.S. Open, where he shocked Pete Sampras in straight sets in the final, and the 2005 Australian Open.
Like Sharapova and another future star of the women’s game, Anna Kournikova, Safin left Russia to develop his game. He did so in part because of the lack of academy-style facilities at home and the brutal winter weather. Safin’s parents were coaches and former players, as well, but he went to Valencia, Spain, to train at age 14 and was joined by his younger sister, Dinara, who also became No. 1.
“We could not rely on anybody but ourselves,” Kafelnikov said. “My parents were not that rich, and I knew if I didn’t succeed in tennis, I would have nothing to do. And that’s what was driving so many of us. The life we had in the Soviet Union wasn’t great, and when it broke up everyone was kind of left alone. The choice was simple. Will you do the hard work or not?”
Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open women’s singles champion, went to Spain, too, before becoming a key part of the big wave of Russian women who entered the elite in the 2000s — including Sharapova, Safina, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva.
Russian women’s tennis has yet to scale such heights in recent years, although Zvonareva, 36, has reached the women’s doubles final of this U.S. Open with a German partner, Laura Siegemund.
But the men, after a fallow period, are now resurgent with Medvedev; Karen Khachanov, 24, and Andrey Rublev, 22.
Medvedev, a shape-shifting tactician ranked No. 5, is the leader. He pushed Nadal to five sets before losing last year’s classic U.S. Open final, and he defeated Rublev, his good friend and boyhood rival, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
“I play a little bit more counterattack,” Medvedev said. “Maybe seeing what my opponent does, then deciding how I’m going to play. Andrey is different. He tries to dictate his game with the forehand, go for the shots. He doesn’t really care what the opponent does. He just cares about himself, so it’s a different strategy. But I think what is a similarity is that, starting from juniors, we always tried to get better. We always pushed each other.”
Individual success in tennis so often begins with a talented group of youngsters who can feed off each other: Consider the great American men’s generation of Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, all of whom won Grand Slam singles titles.
Khachanov and Rublev both went to Barcelona as teenagers to train at the 4 Slam Academy. Medvedev headed in the same direction in his teens but ended up on the Côte d’Azur, based in Monaco and training in Cannes, France, at a small academy co-founded by Cervara.
“He is someone who is very open to new things,,” Cervara said. “He has a mentality that embraces diversity.”
He quickly learned French, and is a fast learner in general, though he is still waiting for his first Grand Slam singles title. It could come very soon, although Thiem is a major obstacle and Zverev could be another one.
“They have not yet accomplished what me and Marat did in our young careers,” Kafelnikov said of Medvedev and the other rising Russians. “Marat won his first Slam at 20. I did it when I was 22. So those guys have not come to our level yet, but I’m hoping that through the years they will have better success than Marat and I had.”