Mikhail Youzhny: The Colonel retires as Russia rises

(Photo credit: Karl Norling)

The retirement of Mikhail Youzhny may not register far beyond the confines of the tennis world. He, like so many others, has been unlucky to compete alongside three of the greatest players ever to pick up a racquet and as all three approach the end of their careers it is their potential retirements that are talked about and fretted over. That leaves players like Youzhny, the already departed Florian Mayer and the soon to go Julien Benneteau to retire with less fanfare.

A career of excellence

But to see Youzhny go quietly into the night would be an injustice for one of the best players of the past two decades. For though he may never have won one of the sport’s biggest titles, he has one of the most impressive resumes in the game and reached at least the quarterfinals at every Grand Slam. At the US Open he was twice a semifinalist, in 2006 when he lost to former champion Andy Roddick in four and then again four years later when eventual champion Rafael Nadal beat him in straight sets.

He finished 2010 ranked inside the top ten and only narrowly missed out on a place at the Tour Finals where he was an unused alternate. Youzhny also won ten Tour-level titles, including two at ATP 500-level, in Rotterdam in 2007 and in Valencia in 2013. He made a further 11 finals and also won nine doubles titles. He was also twice a member of Russian teams that won the Davis Cup, rallying from two sets down to win the decisive rubber in the final in 2002.

Indeed, he and Dmitry Tursunov provided reliable back ups to the talented but unpredictable Marat Safin. Though they never hit the heights that Safin, who won the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2005, did, both men were consistently ranked within the top 30 and maintained Russia’s status as a top tennis nation. Youzhny, in particular, was able to match the game’s best and claimed 31 wins over a top ten player, including three against Nadal and one against Novak Djokovic.

The decline

Unfortunately for Youzhny, he has not enjoyed the late career success of some of his rivals. For whilst half of the current top ten are over 30, the Russian’s decline began around then. He won his last title five years ago in Valencia and has not been to a final since. Injury took hold and the once relentlessly fit Youzhny found himself unable to stay with opponents alarmingly often. That lack of fitness denied him the chance to claim some memorable wins.

Perhaps the most notable example came last year at the US Open in his second-round clash with Roger Federer, who he had never previously beaten. But despite losing the first set swiftly, Youzhny stuck to his task and won the second and third sets. But in the fourth, his legs began to fail him and Federer took full advantage, rallying to claim a 6-1 6-7 4-6 6-4 6-2 victory. For a player who had made a career of grinding out tough wins, his body’s breakdown was doubtless hard to take.

The torch passed

And as Youzhny’s struggles became more pronounced, Russian tennis seemed to struggle with him. A nation that had produced two world #1’s in Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov found itself without a leading light. But now new potential stars have arisen to take over responsibility for leading Russian tennis. The powerful Karen Khachanov, ranked 28th in the world, has already lifted titles in Chengdu last year and Marseille earlier this year.

This year, he reached the fourth round at both the French Open and Wimbledon and pushed Nadal to the brink at the US Open in the third round where he lost narrowly 7-5 5-7 6-7 6-7. Not far behind him is recent Winston-Salem champion Daniil Medvedev, equipped with an awkward game that whilst not particularly easy on the eye is equally never easy to play against. Andrey Rublev, the third ranked Russian, won the title in Umag and reached a US Open quarterfinal last year and is not yet 21-years-old.

Thus, whilst Youzhny’s time on Tour is up, frustratingly one victory short of his 500th Tour-level win, Russian tennis is at long last on the rise once more. Already they look to be assembling a formidable Davis Cup team and though they have not yet managed to engineer a return to the World Group since being relegated in 2012, one suspects they will be back at the top table before too long. The Colonel has retired, but a giant is stirring.

What do you think the future holds for Russian tennis? Let us know in the comments below!

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