Mikhail Youzhny won his 498th main-draw ATP singles match Tuesday night in Atlanta. Wednesday, he was bounced from the tournament by Mischa Zverev. Youzhny’s list of remaining tournaments is small, because “The Colonel” announced his impending retirement after Tuesday’s victory. The summer hardcourt season will be followed by autumn indoor events in Russia, and that’s where Youzhny will call it a career at age 36. Everyone in tennis will be focused on Youzhny’s chase for a 500th career win, the one gleaming goal he can achieve before he hangs up the racquet. In the meantime, what is Youzhny’s lingering identity in tennis? What stands out the most about his career?
On one level, Youzhny’s career is not that unique. Some of his still-active contemporaries — Fernando Verdasco, Richard Gasquet, and Tommy Robredo — are tightly bunched in terms of career wins, career major semifinals, career major quarterfinals, and career titles. It would be a stretch to call Youzhny’s career a “one of a kind” journey. Several other contemporaries sit in the same boat.
It is also worth noting that Youzhny certainly left something on the table in his career. He had an appetite for battle. He played 39 five-set matches in his career of just over 900 matches. Roger Federer, by comparison, has played over 1,400 matches and competed in 51 five-setters. In Youzhny’s 39 five-setters, he went a very respectable 21-18. He knew how to survive long matches, a microcosm of a career which might reach the 500-win plateau if he can find two more wins in the coming months. Yet, even with those survival instincts being acknowledged, Youzhny painted a portrait of inconsistency in his career. Many of his five-setters were products of a game which rose and fell, instead of remaining stable. This was apparent in the early years of his career, and it was recalled last summer in his five-setter against an out-of-sorts Roger Federer at the U.S. Open. Youzhny matches have frequently been roller-coasters, and while The Colonel could often dig himself out of trouble, he courted trouble so regularly that he was not able to make lots of big runs at significant tournaments.
Youzhny made life hard on himself often enough to matter. He would throw himself into tournaments with great effort but then arrive at a match when he was spent, and in that emotionally fried moment, he couldn’t offer much of any resistance. His tame 2012 Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer was a representative example. Youzhny forged what was generally a very successful tournament for him, but the end of the tournament was so disappointing that it was hard to remember the good parts. This is a theme shared by Gasquet and Verdasco, two players who probably had even more talent than Youzhny did but ran into similarly low ceilings in their careers, despite the large stacks of wins.
One can’t look at Youzhny’s career and NOT point out those deficiencies.
However, for all the flaws and faults one can find with Youzhny — and others who exist on a similar level — let’s step back and acknowledge the 498 wins (and counting). Let’s acknowledge the $14,000,000 prize money threshold The Colonel has crossed. Let’s acknowledge over a decade and a half of professional tennis. If one can — and should — say that Youzhny didn’t reach the heights his potential suggested, one must also say that on several bottom-line levels, Youzhny forged an indisputably successful career. Dozens of players on both the ATP and WTA Tours can rightly make the same claim about themselves. Whether it’s Feliciano Lopez or Patty Schnyder, or various other players who have won a lot of matches without winning big tournaments, there are many houses in the mansion of tennis success. Not all rooms have the same view or the same level of luxury, but they’re part of the architecture of the sport and its story. Youzhny belongs in that house of success, and he belongs there more than most.
All of what has been said up to now relates to Mikhail Youzhny’s tennis, but that doesn’t mean it should be the full story or the last word on his career. I have referred to Gasquet and Verdasco in this column — both men have their quirks. Gasquet likes to ask for a ball from a ballkid if he hit a big serve with it or won a big point with it. Verdasco is highly emotive and got locked into an involved dispute with Thanasi Kokkinakis this past spring in Miami. Neither man is a cookie-cutter personality, to be sure. Yet, in comparison to them and a lot of other veteran professionals, Youzhny brought more personality to the table. The Colonel’s nickname came into being from his four-way salute after matches. Tennis purists might have huffed and puffed about how a player of Youzhny’s stature had no business celebrating wins like that. My response: Who cares?
Youzhny was not the most liberated man on the ATP Tour, but he was more expressive than most. He had more space and more freedom in which to be himself. Instructively, the weight of his failures and disappointments did not drag him down the way it did for many of his peers. Youzhny — who once bloodied himself with his racquet — was not merely a “unique personality.” He was a character.
We — as fans and as sportswriters — claim to want more “characters” in sports. Yes, it helps when characters occupy the center of a sport’s spotlight and its media cycles, but “characters” — the people who are remembered for more than just the way in which they played, won and lost — should endure and be appreciated long after their professional careers end. Why is it worth remembering a player such as Mikhail Youzhny? The value of doing so comes from the realization that while a collection of wins and losses exists for every athlete, the ability to navigate the journey with more originality, more independence, more expressiveness, represents a healthy example to pass on to future generations.
Three, four, five players might win similar numbers of matches, titles and milestones, but the one player in that group which does it with more emotional freedom has won a bigger victory, one could argue.
That might be the legacy Mikhail Youzhny leaves behind. If it is, it is not an insignificant one.