My mother was a very successful athlete, a runner in the 200 and 400-meter relays. She competed in the 1976 Olympic Games, winning a bronze medalist in Montréal.
When I was born, both of my parents were working as athletics coaches for the Soviet Union, which meant we were among the few who were able to travel the world. The country was closed, so it was only possible to travel through sports. My mother had been to the United States, Africa, various European countries, Canada. She used to tell me about places she’d gone to, and that absolutely instilled the love and passion for travel I have today.
I always wanted to follow in her footsteps in sports, whether it was in swimming or track and field, but my parents got very into tennis when they started watching the Grand Slams on television, so that was the sport I chose.
I was very successful right away; I was a very coordinated kid, so I picked it up quickly and I enjoyed it. As I started to play matches and enter tournaments, my mother traveled with me until I was about 21 years old. She was at every junior event, my first ITF tournament, sitting in the stands or the bleachers. Off the court, she spent a lot of time with me on my conditioning, my fitness, so she was crucial to my development as a player.
At the same time, being that tough coach meant she demanded a lot of me as an athlete. Every match was important, every tournament was important, and it sometimes felt like it was never enough. After losing a match, I remember feeling like a little kid because, even if she wasn’t at the tournament, I knew she was watching on television or following the live scores on the computer, and so I would hear from her soon after, telling me things I didn’t necessarily want to hear in those moments, being very tough on me. It was almost as if I would have to come up with reasons for why I’d lost the match before we even spoke.
I don’t know if it was just the Russian mentality, but I didn’t get the appreciation and encouragement. I got a lot of ‘This wasn’t good enough; the next one has to be better.’ It was like a tough love, and it might have ended up putting more pressure.
Towards the end of my career, she softened a little because I’d been playing for so many years and had made it to the top level of this very demanding sport. She started to see what a toll tennis takes on the body because the tour plays year-round with very few breaks compared to something like track and field, which had a much shorter season. I had a bunch of serious injuries in my career, so it certainly wasn’t a smooth ride. Once I turned 30, she was looking for me to transition into motherhood and start a family, travel less. She wanted me to have that private life off the court.
In my mind and my head, I wanted to be as successful as my mother, play in an Olympic Games and win a medal. I remember seeing pictures of her in old magazines, but it wasn’t until I was older that I got to see a small clip of the race itself when I was in Canada for the Coupe Rogers. She was the one crossing the finish line for her team.
I played two Olympic Games myself, the last of which was in London, where I played singles and doubles with Maria Kirilenko. A medal was always on my mind, especially with Maria, where we felt like it wasn’t something we had to win, but we were trying to do everything possible to get one. We’d won a bunch of titles together earlier in the season and were feeling quite confident.
Playing an Olympics on grass, it wasn’t a surface that played entirely to our strengths, but we pulled through several very difficult matches and managed to win a medal, and playing at Wimbledon made it even more special because it felt like we’d won a Grand Slam in that bronze medal match.
My mother watched every match and was so proud to watch us win a medal, but even then, she said it was great I’d won a bronze medal like her, but the next one needed to be better.
She would end up passing away the following year, which was quite a hit on me and ultimately led to my decision to retire before the next Olympics in Rio. While I’m disappointed I couldn’t do better, I’m proud to have matched her. Maybe my daughter can follow my lead if she becomes an athlete. Sports success seemingly runs in our blood, so it could end up being a really nice family tradition.
From an interview with David Kane.
More from the My Inspiration Series:
Vera Sukova by Helena Sukova
Martina Navratilova by Hana Mandlikova
Lindsay Davenport by Dinara Safina
Miloslav Mecir by Daniela Hantuchova
Daphne Fancutt by Wendy Turnbull
Althea Gibson by Katrina Adams
Billie Jean King by Ilana Kloss
Judith Wiesner by Barbara Schett