Mikhail Youzhny: The Colonel Steps Down

Being a sports fan can be a slippery slope; especially in individual sports like tennis. We remain so fixated on the athletes who attain ultimate glory, that we often fail to appreciate the lesser accomplished ones. It’s easy to look past the hard work that they put in, simply because they haven’t achieved enough, and the failure to recognize their hard work is sometimes baffling.

One might argue that there’s no apparent need to glorify mediocrity. That glorifying mediocrity only lowers the bar. But, the term “mediocrity” can’t be defined unanimously in tennis. At what point, does a player raise himself/herself from being mediocre? There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. But, rest assured, Mikhail Youzhny–one of Russia’s greatest male tennis players ever-wasn’t mediocre. Of course, at no point in his career was he a Roger Federer, or a Rafael Nadal, or a Novak Djokovic. But that only tells half the story.

In a sport where thousands long to simply win a match on the professional circuit, Youzhny won almost 500. and one of many tennis players whose almost entire career directly collided with the Big 3’s endeavors. Had the legendary trio of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic not happened, there’s a chance tennis history might’ve been written otherwise. Youzhny wasn’t the only one. There are others whose careers directly collided with those three greats, leaving them wondering what-if. Some of them have retired, some are going to very soon. David Ferrer is probably the biggest example from that bunch.

So close, yet so far

When Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain served at 5-3(40-0) in the deciding set, the camera zoomed in to Mikhail Youzhny’s face for a second. Staring at a surefire loss in the final match of his career, the Russian didn’t seem too bothered. He had three match points to save, to keep his tennis career alive for just a little more. He couldn’t. The camera zoomed in on his face again, only this time, a sense of dejection was visible. His final match panned out a lot like his entire career–Youzhny fighting for each point, raising hopes for a while and ultimately spending a little too much energy for a lost cause.

That’s been the entirety of his career. From winning the Russian Honored Master of Sports award for his heroics in 2002 Davis Cup title-winning run to reaching two US Open semifinals, to ultimately dropping out of top 100 and retiring, Youzhny’s almost two-decade long professional career is a story of a typical underachiever. He could’ve had his fair share of glory. But more often than not, he toiled so hard winning matches he might’ve won easily, that he was left with little to no energy in his tank in the matches that mattered the most.

Despite all the shortcomings and losses, Youzhny can boast of a career well-earned. He couldn’t get to 500 wins as only the 2nd Russian man ever after Yevgeny Kafelnikov, but he spent 14 consecutive years inside the top 100. He reached quarterfinals at every single Grand Slam tournament at least once in his career. And, although he could never beat Federer, he showed enough grit and mettle to have 31 wins against top-10 players.

A character both on the court and off it

Mikhail Youzhny is a very friendly and helpful person outside the tennis court, most notably helping fellow Russian Evgeny Donskoy by sharing his coach Boris Sobkin and offering to pay Sobkin’s fees as well, on behalf of Donskoy. But, on the court, he was a rather interesting character. He didn’t have the most ferocious forehand, neither did he have the best serve. He did possess the artistry of the single-handed backhand, but it was never among the best on tour. Throughout his career, his results were inconsistent. But, perhaps due to his Russian upbringing, and his father being in the army, he handled pressure a lot better than his peers. He would always rely on his tennis I.Q. and tactical brilliance to get him past the finish line against physically stronger players.

As much as his game was calm in difficult situations, his personality was quite the opposite. He had a way of a peculiar way of gaining motivation from being angry at himself. Cursing himself, screaming at himself was a norm whenever Youzhny would take the court. The most infamous scene regarding this side of Youzhny’s character was at the Miami Open, back in 2008. Wasting a break point against Nicolas Almagro, Youzhny was so distraught, he hit the racquet multiple times against his head causing a nasty-looking bleeding from his forehead.

Despite all his emotional ups and downs on the court, Youzhny has a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He earned it in December 2010 after submitting thesis titled Professional Tennis Players on the Court. It dealt with behaviors of different tennis players under different circumstances and how they prepared themselves before their matches. He’s one of the very few players in modern tennis, who have received higher education and actually graduated from college.

Mikhail Youzhny, The Colonel

Every time Youzhny won a match, he’d salute the crowd at all four directions, in the way an army personnel does. His racket was his helmet. More than just a victory celebration, it was him honoring his father’s life as an army member. In tennis, where almost every player gets nicknamed, rarely does it happen that their celebration style earns them a nickname. Mikhail Youzhny was one of those rare players. His post-match celebration style earned him the nickname Colonel.

Fans love characters they can relate to. They love players who entertain themselves and the fans. They love a player who gives everything out in court at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t the greatest ever, or that they won’t appear in the GOAT discussions. Some players are meant to be more relatable than others. Mikhail Youzhny was one such. It doesn’t matter that he couldn’t sign off with his signature Colonel-salute. His legacy will live.

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