I know how this is. The beginning of a book. Dedication, they call it. The page we tend to skip. Next!
But this book is for you.
We might have never met, or met each other briefly. You might have never heard of me.
If you already know a little bit about my story, thank you for wanting to know more.
For trusting me with your time. For being curious. Maybe it was simply the cover that caught your eye. Thank you for taking the chance to pick it up.
Last, to the amazing number of you from all around the world who live through my victories and defeats as if they were your own. “Thank you” might not be strong enough words to show you my appreciation, but the gratitude I carry with me will forever be because of you.
Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.—NELSON MANDELA
At some point toward the end of the 2016 Australian Open, a nurse asked me to pee in a cup. There was nothing unusual about this—it’s just another part of the procedure, performed by the ITF, the International Tennis Federation, to drug-test athletes and keep the sport clean. I was twenty-eight years old. I’d been peeing in those cups for more than a decade, and I forgot all about the test the moment after it happened, my mind quickly returning to the matter at hand: the next leg of the tour, the next match I’d have to win to get where I still needed to go. I’d already won five Grand Slams, including the Australian Open, but the desire to be the happiest player on the last day of a big tournament never diminishes. In fact, it increases. As I neared the end of my career—in the first weeks of 2016, that’s all I was thinking about—I became especially aware of time. I’d only have so many more shots at a Grand Slam title.
Serena Williams beat me in the finals in 2015. Straight sets, with a second-set tiebreaker. It’s never fun to lose, but I went away optimistic, strong. I looked forward to the coming season, which would be one of my last. In fact, in those weeks, as I made my way from tournament to tournament across Asia, I was thinking less about the game than about my retirement. I knew the end was near and I wanted to go out in the perfect way. I’d take one last turn around the circuit, from the Australian Open, to the French Open, to Wimbledon. A kind of victory tour. I’d love the people and the people would love me. It would end at the U.S. Open, which I’d play just as this book hit the stores. Maybe I’d even make it to the final. Maybe Serena would be there, too.
Serena Williams has marked the heights and the limits of my career—our stories are intertwined. I approach every match against her with trepidation and respect. It was Serena whom I beat in the Wimbledon final to emerge on the international stage at seventeen, and it’s Serena who’s given me the hardest time since. I’ve beaten all the players who have beaten Serena, but it’s been nearly impossible for me to beat Serena herself. There’s a reason for this—she knows it and she knows that I know. It’s our secret, which I’ll get into in the fullness of time.
Maybe I’d find a way to beat her and my career would end as it began, with me holding the chalice beside Serena as the crowd cheered.
Well, you know what they say: Man plans, God laughs.
Three weeks into the season, I got an e-mail from the ITF. As I read it, I started to panic. That urine test I’d taken back in Melbourne? I failed it. Meldonium had been found in my urine, and in January 2016 meldonium had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. In other words, I was now a drug violator. I’d be suspended from competition immediately. A hearing would follow.
I’d never even heard of it. This must be a terrible mistake. Sitting on my bed, I googled it. Looking at the results, my heart sank. Meldonium also goes by the name Mildronate, and that was something I had heard of. It’s a supplement I’d been taking for ten years. It’s used to treat many ailments, including coronary artery disease. Mildronate had been recommended to me by a family doctor back in 2006. I’d been run down at the time, getting sick very often, and had registered several abnormal EKGs. There was also a family history of diabetes. I did not think much about that pill, I just took it. I took it before any intense physical exertion, as you might take baby aspirin to ward off a heart attack or stroke. I was not the only one doing this. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Mildronate is like ibuprofen. Millions of people take it every day, including my grandmother! I had never put it on an ITF form—you’re asked to list every medication or supplement you’ve taken in the previous seven days—because I did not take it every day and did not consider it any different from the Advil I took for pain.
How does it enhance performance?
Even the ITF can’t tell you. Because it doesn’t. It seems the officials banned it merely because it was being used by so many Eastern Europeans. “Well, if they’re taking it, they must be taking it for a reason”—something like that. I’d missed news of the ban because it came under my radar, in a long list reached only by following a series of links included in an ITF e-mail, and I hadn’t noticed anything different. That was my big mistake. I was sloppy. And now that moment of carelessness threatened to ruin everything. I could be banned for as long as four years! Four years? That’s forever to a professional athlete.
A bottomless hole opened beneath my life and in I went. Everything I’d worked for since I was four years old, that whole crazy struggle, was suddenly cast in a new, terrible, unfair light. What followed were days of disbelief and despair.
“Goddamnit,” I finally screamed, rousing myself. “I’m going to fight this bullshit.”
What’s defined my game more than anything? Determination, tenacity. I do not quit. Knock me down ten times, I get up the eleventh and shove that yellow ball right back at you. “This will not beat me,” I said. “This will not be the last word.” To understand my determination, you need to know who I am, where I come from, what happened. You need to know about me and my father and the flight from Russia in the dead of night when I was six. You need to know about Nick B. and Sekou and Serena and a nice old couple from Poland. You need to know the crazy story. In other words, you need to know everything.
I’ve always loved to hit. From the time I was four years old. It’s the one thing that can fix any problem. You’ve lost Wimbledon in a frustrating match and everything that might have gone right went wrong? Pick up a racket and hit. The strings and the ball, the charge that carries through your body fixes everything. Hitting returns you to the present, where the flowers bloom and the birds sing. You’ve gotten terrible news from the other side of the world? Your grandmother died and there is nothing but a long flight and a funeral ahead? Pick up a racket, pick up a ball. And hit. The rules changed and you did not know the rules changed and all of a sudden a pill you have taken for years has undone everything? Pick up a racket and hit!
It’s one of my first memories. I was four years old. My father, who had taken up tennis a year or two earlier because his brother had given him a racket for his birthday, brought me along to the local courts where he played in Sochi. A small park with clay courts, a snack bar, and a Ferris wheel, from the top of which you could see over the apartment house to the Black Sea. That day, because I was bored, I pulled a racket and a ball out of his bag and started to hit. Off a fence, off a wall. I went around the corner and hit where other players were hitting. I was small and young and did not know what I was doing but quickly fell into a trance, the ball leaving and returning to my racket like a yo-yo in the palm of your hand. In this way, I got my father—Yuri; this is his story as much as mine—to stop what he was doing and notice me. In this way, my life began.
I’m not sure if I remember this, or if I just remember the old, faded photographs: a tiny blond girl with the knobby knees and oversized racket. I sometimes wonder if I’m still the same person who picked up that racket. Very quickly the game changed from the simplicity of hitting to the complications of coaches and lessons, matches and tournaments, the need to win, which is less about the trophies than about beating the other girls. I can get fancy and sweet about it, but at bottom my motivation is simple: I want to beat everyone. It’s not just the winning. It’s the not being beaten. Ribbons and trophies get old, but losing lasts. I hate it. Fear of defeat is what really drives many of us. I say “us” because I can’t possibly be the only person who feels this way. This might never have occurred to me had I not started writing this book. When you look, you notice patterns, connections. You see things in a new way.
I’ve often asked myself: Why write a book?
In part, it’s to tell my story, and it’s also to understand it. In many ways, my childhood is a mystery, even to me. I’m always being asked the same questions: How did I get here? How did I do it? What went right, what went wrong? As I said, if I’m known for one thing, it’s toughness, my ability to keep going when things look bad. People want to know where that quality comes from and, because everyone is hoping for their own chance, how to acquire it. I’ve never figured it out myself. In part, it’s because of who knows? If you look too deeply, maybe you destroy it. It’s my life and I want to tell it. I talk to reporters, but I never tell everything I know. Maybe now is the time to open up the door for more questions, and to make sense of my life and get down the early days before I forget. I hope people take away every kind of lesson, good and bad. This is a story about sacrifice, what you have to give up. But it’s also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure.
Where should I begin?
How about Gomel, a city in Belarus, its muddy streets and forest paths straight out of a fairy tale? It’s near the border with Russia, a short drive from Chernobyl in Ukraine. My father met my mother in school. What were they like? What were your parents like before you were born? It’s a mystery. My father will tell you he was a genius. And charming. My mother, Yelena, will not agree. He could drive her nuts. He was the kind of student who doesn’t do the reading and skips class, then strolls in and nails the test. School never was important to Yuri. He figured he’d outsmart the system, and there was no teacher who could tell him how.
Yuri was out of school fast. He was in the world by age twenty, working a job I still don’t really understand. He led crews that maintained smokestacks, the sort that spew. He traveled for that job, taking planes to factories all over the country. He spent days on a scaffold, hundreds of feet off the ground, maintaining whatever had to be maintained. Had the Soviet Union survived, he would’ve done that until he was old enough to retire. But the Soviet Union did not survive. It was, in fact, coming apart in my toddler years. If I asked about it, my father would say, “Gorbachev didn’t have the balls.” My father believes a person must be tough to hold anything together—a household, a career, even a country. He knew almost nothing about America. To him, it was blue jeans and rock ’n’ roll and keep the rest. Same with tennis. He did not know about it, did not care. In Russia, tennis was for deposed aristocrats. Yuri played ice hockey and loved to mountain climb, which may explain his life atop the smokestacks.
My mother is beautiful and petite, with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. She’s better educated than my father: aced high school and college, then went on to get the equivalent of a master’s degree. She loves the great Russian writers (when I was little she read me stories and made me memorize passages before I could understand what they were about). By 1986 she was living with my father in a house on the edge of town. There was a yard in front and a forest in back. My grandparents were not far away. My mother’s parents lived in the far north, Siberia, which will be important. When my mother and father talk about those years, it sounds like Eden. The house, the trees, and the shade under the trees, a young couple very much in love. They were poor but did not know it. The house was small and drafty but they did not know that either.
Then it happened: my uncle gave my father a tennis racket for his birthday. It was a joke. Only rich people played tennis. But a club had just opened in Gomel and my father thought, “Why not?” He started too late to become a great player, but he’s a natural athlete, and got good quickly. He fell in love with the game, read books and articles about the stars, watched the Grand Slams on TV. He was preparing himself, though he did not know it. He was in training to become that strange and exotic thing, a tennis parent.
(This is where you’re supposed to laugh.)
One morning in April 1986, as she was working in the garden, my mother heard a rumble in the distance, like thunder. She was wearing a scarf on her head and no shoes, her feet in the dirt. She looked at the sky, then carried on. At first, it was no more than that—just something that makes you look up. She was soon to be pregnant with me, her only child. The rumors started that night, wild, terrifying tales. What exactly caused that rumble? There was smoke in the sky the next morning. That’s when the rumors took shape. These concerned the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. People said it had exploded, that radioactive material had been thrown into the air and would rain down on everything. As if an atomic bomb had been dropped on us. When people went to the government for information, they were told everything was fine. Still, there was panic. Families were packing up and heading off. My mother got a call from her mother, who’d been able to learn more in Siberia than my parents could forty miles from the explosion.
“We called your mother and told her to get out,” Grandma Tamara told me. “Chernobyl was lethal—it killed all living organisms. It was an invisible death. We knew this because we’d met a man who’d been sent in as part of the cleanup. He said the radiation was off the scale. At first, the officials said nothing. People were not even advised to close their windows! Everyone just kept living as before. I remember this man telling us: ‘The mushrooms coming up in the forest are as big as dinner plates!’ When he took pictures, all the film came back overexposed. This man died at forty-five or fifty years old. All those workers did.”