Catching Up With... Leila Meskhi
Published November 26, 2010 12:00
During a playing career that spanned the switch from Cold War to Perestroika, Georgia's Leila Meskhi won five WTA singles titles, scored wins over the likes of Martina Navratilova and Jennifer Capriati, won Olympic doubles bronze, and rose as high as No.12 in the rankings. And in 2011, the 42-year-old faces an exciting new challenge: She's tournament director of the International-level Baku Cup in Azerbaijan, to be staged for the first time in July.
We caught up with Leila in London, where she took part in 'tournament director orientation' with her counterparts from the new Brussels Ladies Open.
Leila, how did your involvement with the Baku Cup come about?
LM: I've been president of the Georgian Tennis Federation for nine years and, of course, Georgia and Azerbaijan are neighbors. Azerbaijan is quite a new country when it comes to tennis, but the president of their federation is a very high level guy - the speaker of parliament - and he loves the sport. But how to start building it up… what to do? A few years ago he called me up and asked me to help, and we became friends. They decided to build a tennis academy, and then talk turned to hosting a tournament. Again, the question was how to go about it, and they asked me to help because of my contacts. It took about 14 months of hard talks to secure the tournament. It was not easy, but we are very happy with the outcome.
What can the players expect from the tournament?
LM: The event is being staged at a newly built tennis centre, outdoors, on hardcourts, so it serves as a US Open warm-up. It's quite a small club, but built to a high standard and in five months the 2,700 seat centre court stadium will be finished. I think the players will really enjoy playing there, because it has all the facilities they need to relax, to swim, to spa…
Tell us about Baku as a destination.
LM: Azerbaijan is an oil country. In many ways it's very new - things change very quickly, with so much construction going on. But there is also a lot of attractive old architecture - the Walled City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a Muslim country, but also quite European in feel. It's a very friendly country, there's great nightlife, and food is important. Baku is situated on the Caspian Sea and so they have very high quality caviar! It's not very often that you see new countries or cities on the tennis calendar, so I think it's going to be very interesting for the players.
At the start of your career you represented the USSR on the world stage. Did you ever imagine that Russia and the former Soviet Bloc states would become such a force in tennis?
LM: No, of course not. It felt unusual at first, but I was so happy when I started to play for my own country, for Georgia. We were always called Russian, but of course we were not… we all had our own languages and culture. In 1992, I played doubles with Natasha Zvereva at the Barcelona Olympics, under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and that felt good. And now, to be creating a WTA event in this part of the world… it's a dream come true for me. It's a big experience, I love to be with the players and around tennis, and I'm really enjoying it.
Is there a secret to all this 'eastern' success?
LM: It's tough to say, although I think President Yeltsin did a lot to help make tennis popular in Russia, and we are seeing the results today. And, of course, in all these countries the level of living has been a little bit lower than many parts of the world. Being a top sportsperson is a way to earn money and improve the whole family's way of life, and people are prepared to work hard for it. Now, the economic situation is much better and going up and up - in Russia especially, but also gradually in the surrounding countries too.
What else keeps you busy these days?
LM: As well as my work for the Georgian federation, I also have my own tennis academy, which has about 150 students. We arrange quite a lot of tournaments for juniors, as well as the ITF events for men and women in Tblisi. It all helps make tennis popular in Georgia, and it means I get to know the girls from early on in their careers, and hopefully I can get them to come to Baku. I also have two kids. Lisa is 14 years old and Giorgi is 12. They both play tennis and enjoy it - Giorgi is the more talented but Lisa is concentrating on her school. They have a much easier life than I did… you know, it's always like this! They have everything, but we try to push them a little bit! But first of all, I want them to enjoy life and enjoy tennis at whatever level.
What do you consider the proudest achievement of your career?
LM: I would say the best memory is of Hilton Head in 1991, when I beat three Top 10 players - Zvereva, Capriati and Navratilova - before losing to Gabriela Sabatini in the final. Playing Martina is probably the highest, highest point because… well, many players come and go but you just never forget such players. To beat her was really something.
What did you do to defeat her that day?
LM: It's difficult to say, now. I'd been working very hard, but I think I just enjoyed the tennis and that was important to the win. If you're playing against such a big star, it can relax you on court because you have nothing to lose. So that helped, and also it was on a clay court and that gave me an advantage as that was my favorite surface.
So did Hilton Head become your favorite tournament?
LM: Yes, and also I have great memories of the US Open, in particular playing Capriati in a night match in the first round in 1993. She beat me 6-4 in the third.
What were your strengths as a player?
LM: My backhand, and smarts.
Did you have a tennis idol when you were growing up?
LM: Chris Evert.
Were you ready to retire when the time came?
LM: Yes, and no. Ironically, I won the tournament in Hobart at the beginning of the 1995 season, but I got a foot injury and retired from my match in the first round of the Paris Indoors. That was in the February, and I didn't return to the tour until September the following year. But it was too hard to come back… I lost four matches in a row and decided it was time to do something else.
Did you ever play against Kimiko Date Krumm?
LM: Many times. In fact, she beat me in my last match at the US Open, it was the fourth round in 1994 and very close. I almost don't know what to say about her. She's unbelievable. To return and play our kind of game, at our age, and do so well… I just want to congratulate her.
If you could play one of today's players on a level playing field, at your peak and with similar equipment, who would you choose to take on?
LM: I wouldn't want to play against either of the Williams sisters, that's for sure! It's not easy to think about losing… I'd want to play someone against whom I'd have a chance of winning.
You've got so much going on work-wise - what do you do to relax?
LM: Six months ago we moved into a beautiful new house, so now I've decided to be at home on Saturdays and Sundays. Before, I worked weekends but now I don't even want to go out. I want to spend the time with my children.
Is there anything you still miss about your days on the tour?
LM: Actually, no. But I can tell you, I feel like I've had two different lives. I had my tennis playing life... and now I prefer this life.