From Engineer at Volvo Trucks to Pro Tennis: the choice of Marina Yudanov

di - 2 novembre 2018
Marina Yudanov
Marina Yudanov- 8° TROFEO CPZ Spa Bagnatica

My relation with Marina Yudanov (Swedish, 29 yo with best ranking, this week,  #571) started with this tweet

Just one of my usual tweet sabout lower level tennis: she replied to my tweet and since then we exchanged often views about tennis. We later discovered a similar path because we are both engineers that left that career to follow our common passion: tennis.

You have been in the top 5 of Sweden girls until 18 yo and then you kind of disappeared from Swedish ranking from 2010 to 2014…what happened?

– Long story short, I had what I can only call an apocalyptic teenage rebellion and threw myself out of tennis, convinced I would never play again and that I hated it all.

The longer story is yeah, I was a pretty good junior, a lot of promise and some good results. The year I was 16 I won the U16 national championships and got up to 250 on junior ITF, but that was also the year it started to go wrong for me. I was still in school 100%, and in a tough school at that, so quite simply the pressure of performing at an elite level in both tennis and school pushed me over some limit. I started to have classic teenage problems and rebelled against everything, hated everyone. I just went out of control, you know: getting involved with people who weren’t good for me, smoking, drinking, everything you can imagine. Couple years later, I completely stopped playing and forgot about the entire tennis world.

When and why did you decide to try to make a living from tennis?

– Well, first I’ll explain how I started playing again, and then how I made the decision to quit my job for tennis.

As I was nearing the end of uni, I was partying less and suddenly a few chance circumstances had me play a bit of club tennis for fun. Then in summer, I went to the WTA in Båstad with a friend, and watched some tennis without being blown away. Later that year (2015, when I was 26), Serena, Vinci and Penetta all were in the US Open semis and they were all over 30, so that sparked a small thought in my head… So then, I tried out playing a national tournament. It went well. And I just discovered this hunger inside me. I can’t put any other word on it. I was starved of tennis, of the feeling of competition, of getting to show your opponent who you were. So that they would remember your name. I played everything and anything I could in Sweden.

I felt that the only thing holding me back was time and opportunity to travel, and that the girls who were beating me had these things. Meanwhile I’d started working as an engineer at Volvo Trucks. And there, even though the pay was good and I was doing well, my body wasn’t happy sitting on an office chair all day. I felt like there was more to me that I hadn’t gotten to show. Tennis filled up all of my leisure time but it wasn’t enough, I needed more.

When I finally decided to quit my job, it was simple. I knew that my tennis shouldn’t just be a hobby, like me jetsetting around the globe and waving a racquet until it got boring. I didn’t want to be a spoiled princess in a tennis skirt playing because I fancied it for the moment. I wanted to commit. I wanted to be responsible for making competitive tennis my career, or at least try to. I wanted to take all of my drive and determination and just push through. To fight and fight until I reached a point where I could break even financially so that I could justify to continue to play, to have it as my life choice. So I wanted to be a responsible, committed adult with goals and visions and hard work — just that I would choose tennis to be my job now, and in a job you have to learn to make money. So that’s my aim.

Before and after your decision what do you think were/are the pros and cons?

– Before I made the decision, I guess I expected the obvious downsides: no reliable salary, no pension plan, no health plan, never being really “off”, pushing through pain and injuries, feeling terrible when you lose, not having a social life, and so on. But now, a new con I have discovered is that it is just so difficult to organise all of this on your own. It takes so much time and effort to try and build a pro career from nothing. Coming into the tennis world, touring, where nobody has the faintest idea who you are, they just know you are old and have no results — this doesn’t make it easy to make connections with competent, ambitious players and coaches. And you need them, for practice and for travelling buddies.

An obvious con (that I did expect beforehand) is that it takes so long to start earning money, to get to a level where prize money could possibly cover all your expenses. If you get there. It’s just so unlikely that everything will click for long enough for you to make the breakthrough to that level. Not to mention to stay there. So probably the sheer odds that are against you are a con. You can’t study how to become a tennis professional and get a degree and know that you are one and can make a living off it. No. There are a thousand things that have to go your way and then on top of that you need to be lucky at the right times.

In a normal office job a big pro is that you get to be “off”. For example, your body is not your tool which you are infinitely accountable for keeping fit. You can leave office on Friday, forget ALL about work, and get so drunk that you don’t make it home and sleep on a friend’s (or a stranger’s) couch, and not feel too bad really. Or, you can go with your loved ones for a vacation somewhere, and not care about keeping up your training regimen. You can go to a friend’s wedding, it won’t clash with an awfully important tournament. Your office job does not define your entire existence, it does not dictate the terms on which you live your life. With tennis, it does.

The pros with having made this choice? They are what I expected. I get to dream. I get to… Express myself, my character, my determination, everything that is me, on a tennis court. I get to have a job where I can show loud emotion, I can yell really really loudly every day and it is considered normal 😀 I get to do something that fulfils me, that gives me immeasurable crazy heady joy, and that makes me cry the bitterest tears. I get to put every single ounce of me up against someone else and we fight it out using this beautiful and brutal sport. It’s all so intense. It’s light years away from a comfortable morning in the office, answering emails, drinking a coffee and then slowly gathering with colleagues in a conference room to spend time looking at slides. It’s just… More.

I suppose travelling is obviously a great opportunity too, but I knew even before that this would feel mundane after a while. Now it’s mostly about “making it work” and hoping it won’t cost too much. Except Japan! Japan really excited me.

How do you plan your schedule? Some players just try to “vulture” tournament with bad entry list, others try to test themselves against tough fields

– That’s a tough one, scheduling is one of the most difficult things. One ex-player from my home club told me that you could get up to like, WTA 300 by just playing the “right tournaments” and after that you had to have something really special to get up higher.

I guess I feel like this: in tennis you need matches to learn how to win matches, and to get matches you have to keep winning matches. So it’s like a self-reinforcing thing. So for sure, I mean you want to test yourself against the best players to get a feeling of like, well, what’s the difference between me and them? What do I still have to do? But at the same time, you need the best return on investment when you put in travel money: you want to get matches under your belt, you want to maybe gather points. Unless you are a unicorn and can be a giant-killer from day 1, you need to think about playing tournaments where you get the chance to play more and therefore learn more, in order to gradually progress further.

On the one hand, I just want to play. And I want to play the good players to be able to really give myself the best information on my weaknesses and what I have to improve. On the other hand, I want to as quick as possible (because I’m not 16yo any more) move up the levels to a place where I can get better prize money, and for this I need points…

The system is built so that two wildly different tournament fields, like day and night, may give the same prize money and the same points. So you can strategically attempt to give yourself the best possible chance of gaining most match experience at this level. I guess when you are trying to move upwards you’ll gladly take any breaks that you can get. It’s like a friend I made on my very first tour trip said: “The best win is a walkover, and then 6-0, 6-0.” My gut feeling then was to completely disagree, because gosh, the best win is when you fight to the death and make it through, and learn something! But in this crazy world of points and prize money and everything being so expensive, and so unrewarding at the lower levels, I can understand why people want to find “weaker fields”. Of course, you will eventually have to play and beat the strong players. That’s the only way to maintain a high ranking.

Perhaps if you are or have been at the top of the game, and want to get back there or stay there, then it is a bit… Questionable, to play weaker fields when you know you should be good enough for the stronger ones. For example, if a player inside the top 100 plays a 25k. There I guess it’s “vulturing”. But that’s not really where I am, now.

How are you preparing to the big change on the ITF Circuit? Do you agree with the change?

– Ha! I wish I could say that I didn’t care about the change, because all I want to do is play and I don’t care about the “formalities”. But that wouldn’t be true. I have taken the step to the next level of futures tournaments (25k instead of 15k) perhaps quicker than was best for my player development. I could have used some more overlap with both types, but now I found out that I had to perform well in 25ks before end of season. So that was a lot of pressure for last 4 months: perform on the next level or lose your earned WTA ranking.

It’s not unlikely that some players will feel “robbed” because we were investing in one thing (15k tournaments) for some time, and then were told that this would not really be worth anything. And that’s what it is, ranking: it’s always the result of an investment, it’s flight tickets, plane tickets, food and lodging, stringing, all these things. I mean not to mention your own effort and the cost of training.

Honestly, it’s difficult to prepare or be strategic — nobody knows how many tournaments there will be to play, and what the acceptance lists will look like. The pool of available WTA points that can be earned at ITF level is going to be drastically reduced. There are, as I see it, not enough 25k and upwards to keep the WTA-ranked players playing for points every week (or almost every week). Everyone seems worried.

Anyway, I have as yet little insight in what this change will mean in practice, so I can’t say for sure whether I agree or disagree. I’m just speculating. It’s like making a tax reform: the government can say one thing and it can sound like a very good and reasonable idea, but when the policy is rolled out the REAL effects on taxpayers and regular people’s wallets might be unexpected and undesirable. I understand the sentiment though: ITF want upward player mobility to happen quicker if you really are good enough for it… So that we don’t have players playing at the level where you just lose money, for decades… We will see.

One of the changes that I’m hoping will be good is the contraction of tournaments to Monday-Sunday format, making it less likely that things overlap and again, easier to plan around.

You travelled in Europe, Africa and Asia during the last months, did you experience any difference in accomodation, organization, quality of surfaces etc?

– Well, yeah! I’d say in my experience that surfaces have been better in Europe, for example the clay courts are much better maintained in Europe than in Africa (what I’ve seen). In Asia I played on artificial grass, and that doesn’t really compare to anything else on the tour so that was unique. But no special comment on the quality there.

Accommodation I would say varies a lot. Generally all the official hotels are stayable, like, it’s OK. Some are very, very nice but terribly, terribly expensive (like in Pula in Sardinia). But in Europe you have the option of renting an airbnb for example, which means you can sort of be your own boss in terms of comfort and expense that you choose. Also food-wise there are often more reachable restaurants and supermarkets in Europe so you can decide for yourself. I like that.

On the other hand, in Africa when I’ve been, it’s clear that the official hotels are the only realistic choices if you want to have a reasonable experience and to be on good terms with the tournament organization. (This happens in Europe too, but less often.) And in Africa, you are often limited with regards to food choices too, because you can rarely get around to restaurants and supermarkets. So that makes it more difficult I’d say. And like I said everywhere has been for sure OK, but for me Tunisia suited me much better than Egypt, in the places I was. So this can actually vary from tournament to tournament as much as it does from continent to continent.

My Asian experience (Japan!) I would say was great. There wasn’t really an option to stay anywhere other than the official hotel but it was very good and very reasonable price, and there were many food options and shuttles to supermarkets. I have heard other people say other things about different places in Asia, though. So one asset that you really learn that you need on tour is to know players who have been to different places and can tell you what to expect, so that you can come prepared.

As for the organization, I’d say it goes up and down not necessarily by continent. Sometimes you have places where courts are so few that the entire tournament becomes defined by this, and everyone has a hard time. Even if you are a good organizer, if you only have two or three courts, you are going to have issues more than someone who has many courts available. In other places you might have tournament officials who have trouble with English, and you don’t know their language, and in that way you suddenly have a barrier to good communication and collaboration.

If I were to put a rating on the best places for tournaments that I’ve been to, I’d say: Japan, the Netherlands and Germany. Finland was nice too. And for the places where my experience has been not the best, well Cairo was pretty difficult in April.

But: you have to embrace all of this as well. If the surface is bad, it’s bad for everyone. If the food is bad, it’s bad for everyone OR you bring your own OR you find somewhere else to eat. If the accommodation/practice court situation/heat/whatever is bad, it’s your business to find a way to make it work.

You are quite active on social media and you look like a big fan of the sport, what would you change as a fan? The first rule I would change is about Medical Timeouts, I see too many times players abusing of this rule and I would allow only one per match, at set end.

– Interesting question! I’m afraid I’m one of those people who aren’t really innovative when it comes to tennis. I shiver at the thought of “short sets” and all this kind of stuff. The only change that I remember agreeing with was when we stopped sitting down at change of ends after the first game of a set!

The MTO rule is very blurred and I have definitely, definitely experienced and seen it being abused several times. It’s very annoying but again: if “everyone does it”, it becomes a question of who can manage it better… Perhaps you’re right and that it should be limited to set breaks, but then what of urgent things like ankle twists which have to be treated immediately or else the player cannot play on? Does the player forfeit the rest of the set then if they have a nasty accident which needs MTO attention? I haven’t got a good answer for that one.

I think I’d be happy with changing the let rule on serve. To just play on the serve even if it catches the net. As for other things up for debate recently, I completely disagree with the idea that coaching should be allowed somehow. I think it would disadvantage those with less resources even more than the sport already does. Also, it takes away from the player their accountability and ability to dig deep and get themselves out of emotional and tactical holes. Tennis is a lonely, brutal sport, but this is what makes comeback matches all the more worthwhile and wonderful.

Christmas is quite close so…what would you ask to Santa Claus for yourself and for tennis in general for 2019?

– Oh, I get to wish for a Christmas present? Hmm, it’s boring to wish for money so I won’t do that. But I’d perhaps wish for a stringing machine of my own and for a nice teacher to teach me to string my own racquets. Or, if not that, then a sponsor for tennis clothes to play matches in. When I started competing on ITF last year I still played in some of the same clothes I had when I was 16, haha, but I’m slowly getting rid of those… Most of my tennis clothes are old, anyway. I’d like to have “kits” to wear from Santa Claus, that would be lovely.

As for tennis in general in 2019… I want to see Gulbis on TV, in the Slams, I want Shapo to win a title and learn to win matches rather than just be flashy, I’d like Fed to continue playing with joy and undeterred by everybody’s retirement talk. If Fed and Sascha each make a Slam final, that’d be joy. I’d like Serena to win another Slam and for Venus and Kuznetsova to please not retire. I’d like Radwanska to be back and winning some matches. I’d be pleased if Osaka won another Slam.

As relates to the Futures tour… I wish to heavens that somehow, magically, the atmosphere and friendliness that I felt from both officials and players at the tournaments in Japan, if that feeling could please manifest itself at European tournaments also? So that everyone could get along outside of the match and still compete fiercely during the match. Sure, everyone is a potential adversary, but all of us are still colleagues and will need eachother for practices, for roommates, for travel buddies in future, so I wish we could just all connect better.

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