Nadal slayer, Davis Cup winner, head smasher: What is Mikhail Youzhny's biggest claim to fame?
“Every person has a legacy. You may not know what your impact is, and it may not be something that you can write on your tombstone, but every person has an impact on this world." - Dara Horn
The exasperating thing about legacies is that ones built over a lifetime of hard work and grind can be tarnished by one moment of madness; one instance of the red mist taking over; one moment in which control is lost.
For Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny, a statement has never rung quite so true. Despite notching wins over the likes of Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal and hovering around the top 10 for years, Youzhny will, in all likelihood - much to his consternation - be remembered for one moment and one moment only: his meltdown against Nicolas Almagro at the Miami Masters in 2008.
Having toiled to earn a break point in the third set of their encounter, Youzhny netted a rather tame backhand. Heaving a scream of anguish, he then proceeded to crack his head open, drawing blood as he smacked himself with the frame of his racquet not once, not twice, but thrice, wild-eyed and animalistic.
Unfortunately for him, in the rather vanilla atmosphere of a tennis match, that was the equivalent of a heatwave in the Antarctic; an aberration, and one that proved to be a rather massive blot on his CV; one that would remain in the minds of fans for decades, surely even after his retirement from the sport.
Cast that incident aside though, and you’re left with a moderately talented player with an impressive list of accolades, who, if Lady Luck had decided to save some time for, could have ended up in the pantheon of greats. But that was never Youzhny’s destiny. I hate to throw the word ‘destiny’ around lightly for it seems too easy a target of blame. Fail to launch a successful business, blame destiny for it, drop out of college too early, there’s destiny waiting to hear an earful.
In Youzhny’s case, however, the word seems apt. He was never destined to be a great. He was unfortunate enough to be thrust in to the greatest generation of all time; one in which 51 of 62 Slams have been won by 3 men. A generation blessed - or cursed, depending on the way you want to look at it - with players who belt the fuzz off the ball or punish their bodies till breaking point just to survive in the brutal environment of a professional tennis court.
Youzhny fit into neither category. Instead, he carved a niche of his own. Sliding along the baseline with a languid forehand and unorthodox backhand, the Russian relied more on manoeuvring his opponents off the court than pummelling down serves and monstrous forehands. The backhand was the stuff of legends; arguably one of the best in the game and carved out of steel.
Born in a different era, he would surely have been a multiple Grand Slam winner, nevertheless, he still did manage some pretty impressive triumphs, including ones over Djokovic and Nadal amongst others.
The 2002 Davis Cup epitomized the Russian’s career. Down and out having conceded the first two sets to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the final rubber of the Davis Cup final, in the cauldron that was the Bercy Stadium, Youzhny mounted the greatest comeback of his career, taking the next three sets and writing a new chapter in the history of Russian tennis.
Youzhny conquered France, he conquered injuries - returning unscathed time and again - he even looked retirement in the eye and said ‘not now good sir’, but the one obstacle he could never conquer came in the form of a 1.85m wand-wielding Swiss magician.
Roger Federer had Youzhny’s number for his entire career, winning all 17 of their meetings, and the Russian’s biggest regret would surely be letting a 2 sets to 1 lead in the 2017 US Open slip. Prior to this match, the Russian had just won 4 sets in 16 encounters against the Swiss maestro, but channeled some of his 2006 form to inch ever so close to a monumental upset. However, Federer, despite being far from his best - in fact, he was quite near his worst - did just enough to sneak through as Youzhny’s 35-year-old body gave way. It symbolized his entire career - hard work and flashes of brilliance that ultimately bore no fruit.
However, the Colonel, as he was known, has no regrets with the way his career ultimately panned out. “I can say I had a great career. I never thought I could play until 2018 and that I can play at a high level. I was one of the youngest guys from my age that went into the Top 100 and from all the times, I was at a high level. All the time I can say I was a professional, that’s why I maybe stayed later in the tennis career,” he explained rather emotionally on the sidelines of his final tournament in St. Petersburg.
As Youzhny finally calls time on his career, he would fervently hope that the Davis Cup win of 2002, the 499 wins on the ATP tour and the respectful salute to the crowd following each match victory live long in the memories of the fans, and mask that one moment of madness in Miami.