Tennis' Russian accent
Teen star on rise in New York
BY WILLIAM SHERMAN
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Olga Poutchkova, 19, lands in New York from Russia to realize dream of succeeding on pro tennis circuit.
The drafty, dingy indoor courts at 164th St. and Jerome Ave., the Bronx, are the last place you'd expect to find one of the world's top female tennis players banging away at balls in a furious workout. But Olga Poutchkova, 19, is a New Yorker, the sole city resident in the top 50 on the women's tour, and the Stadium Racquet Club is where she trains when she's not on the road. She came to the U.S. from Russia three years ago to try to make the big time, following the hard emigre trail of other Russian women who eventually became stars, most notably Maria Sharapova.
Poutchkova smacks some 100-mph serves and then starts running side to side across the court, hitting as she goes, sweating despite the cold.
For those with limited means like Poutchkova, it's not merely a struggle to beat the odds against success. It also means sacrificing friends, family, home and all the other aspects of a conventional teenager's life. There was no prom for Poutchkova.
Her coach, Bruce Haddad, a New Yorker, stands behind her, in back of the baseline, coaxing her with instructions.
"More topspin, more angle," he says, and Poutchkova whacks a backhand to order with so much action on the ball, her practice partner can only look on hopelessly.
Haddad is a coach who pushes strategy and mental toughness over power. Poutchkova has plenty of the latter, but she's still working on the former. "Can she hit the ball as hard as Serena (Williams)?" Haddad asks. "Absolutely, but there's a lot more to it than that."
Still, this week, Poutchkova is No.35 in the world with a bullet.
John McEnroe drove up to the Bronx facility the next day, hit with her for 90 minutes, and said flatly, "She's got top 10 potential. Definitely."
Only six months ago, Poutchkova was ranked 110th. But by getting to the finals of tournaments last fall in India and Canada, her ranking soared.
Two weeks ago, she played at the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam appearance. She won her first-round match, but lost in the second round, 6-2, 6-2, to Amelie Mauresmo, No.3 in the world. "It was (Rod Laver Arena), packed with 15,000 people with all the TV cameras and I felt small, so small. It was my first time in a big stadium," she said after the session in the Bronx.
Last week, she lost in the first round at the Gaz de France in Paris. She is 23-12 in two years on the WTA Tour.
For Poutchkova, life on the road means all-coach class flights and lodging at Haddad's small two-bedroom Second Ave. apartment. "It costs $10,000 a month minimum to go on the tour," Haddad said.
Until recently, Olga's prize money hardly matched those expenses. She's earned $180,721 since turning pro. A sizeable chunk of that - $38,718 - came in the last eight weeks.
"Glamour, yes, that's what the fans see," Poutchkova said in a faint Russian accent, "but it's really plane, hotel, practice, match, eat, hotel, TV, sleep, eat, practice, nap, match, gym over and over. No time for sightseeing, but I'm going out at night here. It's very lonely. "
On the court, Poutchkova is expressionless, a powerful 140-pound mechanic with a racquet. Off the court, the stunning 5-11 blonde smiles easily, laughs a lot and talks nonstop. "I love New York," she said. "I'm a big Rangers fan, put that in, and I don't have a boyfriend, put that in too. I love NHL players and I love shopping, bags, shoes, clothes."
Poutchkova doesn't mind the spartan Bronx setting where she practices. "I am from Belarus, Minsk, 400 miles from Moscow, and there are very few courts. Even when I was little, we used to sweep the snow off to play and we played in gloves. When it rained, when the clay turned to mud, we still played. Not like here in the U.S."
Her mother was an Olympic figure skater and then a coach. Her father Alex is a businessman. "Not a big business like here, you know," she said. "We were not rich, anyway life is different in Russia.
"Every day, up at five to practice before school, then after school, for a couple of hours and you have to do your homework, no exceptions. I had no childhood."
Her father was her coach, a classical martinet, like many of the fathers on the women's tour. Because of various incidents and strains, she no longer speaks to him. "He turned me into a machine. I am more than that. I don't really want to talk about it," Poutchkova said. "It's the same with other girls, especially Russian girls because the fathers see tennis as a way to make money."
Now she's with Haddad, 35, a former All-American college player. "She's hungry and that's what it takes," he said.
A look at the list of the top 50 on the women's tour shows 11 are from Russia. Three of the top 10 are from Russia. "People are always asking how come so many girls from Russia are doing so well," Poutchkova said. "The answer is simple: Because of where we're from, what we go through, we get on the court and we want to kill."