Sunday, March 28, 2010

Memories.




In early '90s, when Russia was starting to open up and change for the better. People were starting to have more possibilities to earn money. Most of them left their normal jobs and became entrepreneurs. So did my father.
Like many other Russian men, my father left his 20 year job as engineer and became a business man. He did everything from construction to import-export. The money was more then he ever made in his lifetime (by Russian standards).
With the money my dad made we could afford a new TV and a washing machine. My mother got her long awaited "dublenka" (sheepskin coat which is really popular in Russia) and I got new tennis shoes and two more tennis racquets.
Of course, being a "business man" was a dangerous thing in crazy '90s. Some people didn't survive, and were killed by their rivals. As many others, my father was also faced with danger of being killed over a business deal. But he chose family over money and I am thankful to him. He is a great honest man, and I am proud to be his daughter.

On one of the sunny afternoons, my father set me down in our small kitchen and said: "Here is a thousand dollars, I want you to go play those tournaments you wanted." It was probably most of our savings we had, and I was hesitant to accept his offer. But I knew that my parents would sacrifice more then that for the well being of their children.
Looking back, it was already a sacrifice living in 43 sqm (420 sqft) apartment in four, for over a decade. It was my parents, my older brother and me. On some occasion my grandmothers would visit and stay for a while. When that happened, my place in the apartment was restricted even more, to underneath the table in the living room. I slept on unfolding metal bed, referred to as "raskladushka" in Russia.

I looked at the money laying in front of me on a kitchen table. Looked at my father. I knew I had to be very careful with spending it. The road ahead was long, 7 weeks on the road, through 4 different countries, I had to pay for transportation, boarding and food. I was only 16 years old but I knew how hard it was for my dad to earn this money and I also knew, these would probably be the only tournaments I would play that year. So I took the money, put it in a pouch and was on my way to start my trip.

The most remarkable adventure of all happened in Budapest, Hungary. I remember taking a train from Slovakia to Croatia, with a layover in Budapest. I got there at 10pm and all the visitor centers at the train station were already closed. And taking a taxi to go to some hotel in the city I knew nothing about was a bit scary. So I decided to stay at the train station and wait till 6 am for my next train.
I found a nice spot in the middle of the station where I can have a view of everything and made myself comfortable on a metal bench. For a couple of hours I did my crosswords and wrote my diary, feeling safe. Then, about midnight I saw a couple of men. They appeared out of nowhere and now were eyeing me. It made me uncomfortable and I hugged the pouch with money underneath my sweater. But than the men were gone the same mysterious way they appeared. I breathed out with a relief.

Another hour has gone by. A man came in the station and walked right to my bench and sat down behind me. I really needed to go to the bathroom, but carrying a heavy bag and my tennis racquets with me seamed such a bad idea. So I turned to a man behind me and asked him in English to look after my bag while I used a bathroom. I knew that I might not see my bag again, but at that point I was to tired and sleepy with my bladder about to explode, that I didn't really care.
Surprisingly when I came back, the man was still sitting on the bench with my bag next to his feet. He turned his face to me and I saw that he was just a couple of years older then me. "You should not be sitting here alone."-he said to me in good English. Happy to see my bag still there, I sat next to him on the bench and we started talking.

He told me he was Romanian. I told him I was English. I didn't know what was the political situation between Russia and Romania, so I decided that England would be a safe choice. But when he asked me where in England I was from, I came up with a first city in mind, Manchester, he told me he has been there. "Oh no,"-I thought-"now what do I do? I have never been to Manchester!"
Thankfully he never asked me my address and I tried to speak with the best English accent as I possible could, to pass for a British girl. Now when I think about it, I ask myself: "What the hell was I thinking!?"

His name was Rado. He told me that he escaped from prison and was heading to a French army. He had no documents and needed a plan to get on the train illegally. The words "prison" already sounded bad enough for me and I moved my bag closer to my side. But I needed to know what he was in prison for? "I killed someone"-he answered calmly. A wave of cold shock run through me. Oh my God, he is going to kill me too!!!! Oh my God!!!
Inside I was screaming, outside I tried to appear calm. I came up with a plan, talk as much as I could so he would have no time to kill me. Talk all the time. And so I did.

Rado carried my bags while we were looking for food, he didn't say much just listened to my crazy talk about weather, food, my cat, my parents. He mostly stared at the road while walking with sad look on his face. I felt bad for him and had a strong urge to hug him. But I just kept talking.
At one of the closed food stands we met a boy about my age. Rado started talking to him. I didn't know what language it was. All I knew I didn't understand any of it, and I didn't like that. So with a huge smile on my face I suggested that we find food and I buy it for everyone.
But all the food stands at the station were closed. So our new friend took a chocolate bar from his left pocket. "We can share it"-he said in broken English. The sound of a familiar language made me feel better and I started talking again.

Our new found friend didn't tell us his name, but was kind enough to tell us what he did for a living. He was a "pickpocket." Ahhh, so nice! Here I am in a company of a killer and a thief, sharing a chocolate bar! I even smiled at this thought and made a joke. " Do I look like one of your victims?"-I asked. "No, you are to nice to steal from."-he answered. And all three of us laughed.

The night was passing by fast. We talked about our lives and dreams. The "pickpocket" gave me his phone number and told me to find him a nice English girlfriend. And when the sun started to come up he said his Good byes.
Rado accompanied me to my train. Helped me to my seat, and stood outside my window until the train started moving. " I know who you are and where you are from!"-he shouted to me-"You are my angel!"
I was looking out of the open window of the fast moving train. Rado's figure was becoming smaller and smaller. "On the contrary Rado, you were my angel tonight."- I said into the wind.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to Rado. And if he was a criminal. But I know for sure, he was my protector during that night. Who carried my heavy bag, listened to my crazy talk and just kept me company. And for that, I am thankful.






Thursday, March 25, 2010

Clearwater and Miami.


Clearwater.


The tournament in Clearwater was named after a sheriff, but the ironic thing was, I've never seen or heard so many police and ambulance sirens like I did in one week. There was a car robbery, a missing boy and gas explosion. And to add some more excitement to all of the above, we had a lot of rain. So some girls had to play 3 matches a day.
My singles didn't go so well, but I made up for it with doubles final. And because I was playing finals, I couldn't make it to the next tournament. Which would have been in Mexico. I have to tell you though, I was not looking forward to another Mexican bus ride. Unfortunately it's the best way to Irapuato, Mexico, fly into Mexico City or Guadalajara and then take a bus.


During the tournament I stayed with friends of my friends who happened to be Russian.
They have a beautiful house on Belleview Island with incredible views.
The route to the club was easy, I didn't have any traffic all the way to the club and back. Most people made a turn before the poshy neighbourhood I stayed at. Sometimes I was the only one driving through narrow street looking at the beautiful houses around.





Miami.

Driving back home for 5hrs was not fun, but I was happy to go back. Home is home, doesn't matter how big or small it is. So for the first couple of days when I get home for a trip I like to stay home and some house work. I also like to visit some of my favorite places like a small fishing pier in Hallandale Beach, where you can see fish swimming through incredible clear water, fabric store in Boca Raton that has lots of great fabrics, and new cafe in West Palm Beach that serves delicious 3 course lunch for only $20.

Sony Ericsson tournament started on Monday. I remained 8 out, but still had good time being there. I did an interview with Tennis Chanel, watched some good matches and talked to all of my fellow tennis players. I also wanted to go to the player party, but as I said, I am a party pooper. I usually get dresses, put make up on and then get really sleepy. I remember, it was my first vacation in 17 years, where I didn't bring tennis rackets or running shoes with me. My boyfriend took me to Cancun, Mexico.
All flight long I was thinking that something was missing, even when I picked my luggage the feeling was still there.
Anyhow, one of the nights we went out to a night club and I fell asleep in one of the uncomfortable lounge chairs. From now on we try to go out a bit earlier then other people.

I have another week home, I've decided to take some time off to prepare for the clay season. My fitness regimen is brutal right now. I am doing the old program I used to do when I was top 50.And I am starting to remember how hard I used to work when I was at my best. It's easy to get used to nice things and life, which makes it twice harder to go back to things that were hard but made you better. So if I want to continue playing this year at my best I have to go back to the roots, where it all started.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Monterrey.




I found out I am in the tournament on friday night. All the flights that day to Monterrey, Mexico were already gone. So the only way I could get there in time for my match was to take an early morning flight. I am not an early riser and hate morning flights, but I was happy to play one of my favorite tournaments again. So alarm clock was set for 4 am and the bags were packed in a matter of an hour.

When I am traveling, I love watching people. People that are going, people that are coming, people that are waiting.
Here is a woman dragging her bag, a huge teddy bear and a crying child on top of it. Another very large woman who is trying to walk in her high heels, that look like they are going to brake. And in line at starbucks a woman who's race and age I can't tell. She has a long ponytail with lots of bows in it, piercing of every part of her face and a big bump growing on her ear that is tied with dental floss.
Ok, lets look at men. There is always a man that thinks he is hot stuff, I look around and see one. He is siting with his legs crossed, cell phone in one hand and blackberry in the other. He talks very loud about some meeting he just had and trying to let everyone know how important he is. I smile and look away.

Thank God my flights were on time and I made it to Monterrey with enough time to check in to the hotel, eat and warm up for my match. I was tired, but mentally prepared to play. And also happy to be there.
You see, before I came to USA, I went to Mexico. I played a lot of small tournaments there and happen to have lived in Monterrey and practice at the club where the tournament is. People of Monterrey were always nice with me and have helped me a lot. So when I go back there I always feel like home.

My match against Zec Pesciric was very long. I was loosing a set and 2-0, but then came back and won the second set 6-3. Third set started even, but I went ahead 5-3. It was a very long game that I lost, and then lost the next two, feeling very tired. But somewhere in my brain I still had that fighting power in me, that always made me stand out and helped me win lots of matches. It came in handy at 3 match points down, I just felt so calm and confident under the pressure, and it helped me win the deciding tie-breaker.
After the last point I felt exhaustion piling on.I dropped in my chair unable to move for a few minutes. Thank God for good trainers and massage therapists on tour, without them I wouldn't be able to function! And thank God for nice soft bed and black out curtains in the hotel. At 8 pm my lights were out!

Next day I woke up to a nice view of the mountains. Had a nice big breakfast and was mentally ready to battle again. But my body had a different plan. It wanted to sleep, it wanted a massage, it didn't want to be on the tennis court running down balls.
It was a good fought match, with long points and many "come on". I gave everything I had, but lost.

video

That evening we had a player party. Location was one of the older hotels in Monterrey. Three course dinner was served and entertainment contained Mariachi and traditional Mexican dances. It was also Jelena Jankovic's birthday and the tournament director had a surprise for her, a huge cake and a Mariachi band.

Ok, it was time to plan a trip back home. Flying directly from Monterrey was very expensive, so I decided to take a bus to Laredo and fly from there. The good news was, tickets are more then half a price less from Laredo. But do I want to do it again? Probably not!

When we pulled to a bus station, I must have had a scared look on my face, because a local police asked me in a broken English:" Americana? Come with me." He took my bags and showed me the way.



The bus station looked run down and old. Counters and people were everywhere. Bus company signs were the only lights that illuminated the station inside. And a couple of empty cafes, that looked like small holes in the wall, waited for someone to buy something from a large selection of potato chips and soft drinks.

With assurance and re-assurance of the hotel concierge, that my bus was at 9am, I found out that the bus was at 8.15am and I missed it by 10 minutes. So I bought a ticket for the next one that was leaving in an hour.
Holding my luggage as close to me as possible, I was looking for a place to sit. The seat cushions were torn out, don't know who would do such a thing. Maybe someone decided to stuff their pillows.
I sat in the corner and looked around. There was not enough light to read and I really didn't want to open my Louis Viutton bag.
In about half and hour I needed to go to the bathroom. Finding it was easy, getting inside was a problem.

Risking to never see my bags again,I asked a girl at the counter if she could look after my luggage while I go to the bathroom. She agreed.
The "Banos" greeted me with steal bar entry, like at some NYC metro stations. It was impossible to sneak in or pass with bags. For a moment I mentally measured the size of my bag and the entry, but gave up.
Once I got through the metal bars and took some toilet paper from a huge role hanging on the wall, I was in for a "green treat" inside the ladies bathroom.
The doors had no locks and the walls were so low that you could see other women's heads.
After that memorable experience I stopped drinking water and was hoping not to use that toilet again.

Getting on the bus was confusing. My ticket said "Sala-1" but it led to a big open space outside with a line of buses. My bus was nowhere to be found.

A man appeared in front of me, he attached a bag tag on my bag and disappeared. He appeared again half an hour later and announced that my bus was arriving. "Where?"-I asked. He pointed to a couple empty spaces "Maybe here or there."
Well,that was promising! But thankfully I spotted my bus early and was able to get to it's stop on time.
I was surprised how soft and comfortable the seats inside were. I took out my book and pillow and happily sat down. But my happiness didn't last long. A very large woman sat next to me, cutting my lovely space in half. Almost right away she started eating, offering me a piece of her taco. And when I said " no, thank you" she replied "Whats wrong with you? You only eat fruits?
The rest of the trip she ate and slept. Every nap she took followed up with a snack and humming to herself.

When we got to the Mexican border I was the only one who got my documents checked. My "neighbor" said-"Because you are the only white one on the bus." I looked around, she was right.
At the american border things were different, I was barely looked at and the rest of people were throughly checked.



After crossing the border, the bus made his final stop at a very small station. It was full of people and stuff they bought. There were boxes inside and outside. And I was wondering if it will all fit on the bus.
In Spanish, I asked for a taxi to the airport and when it came I thought: "Does anyone speak English in this city?"
I told the driver to take me to the airport to Continental terminal, she smiled back. And I understood why. There was only one terminal, and it had Continental and American Eagle counters. There were two people working and I while eating at a small restaurant near the counter, I was looking at my lonely bag, standing in the middle of a room waiting to be picked up.
Two days, two matches, one bus ride, four flights. And many new memories. Every week brings something new and exciting. Good or bad, I will never want to change any of it!