KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Max Mirnyi, one of the top doubles players in tennis, encountered a scheduling crisis during a recent tournament in Long Island. He had to practice for a match, but he also had promised to accompany his 13-year-old daughter, Melanie, on an excursion that would require time and planning.
Mixing competition and parenting can be a complicated enterprise, especially in a sport like tennis that requires extensive international travel. Serena Williams, who now travels with her 7-month-old daughter, is learning this, just as players like Victoria Azarenka, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have done before her.
But Mirnyi knows a trick or two. To resolve his recent predicament, Mirnyi entrusted Melanie with the job of organizing a trip into Manhattan to see “Anastasia,” the Broadway musical.
“She said, ‘Dad, don’t worry about me,’” Mirnyi said. “‘You go practice. I have schoolwork. I am going to read through the play we are going to see, and I’m going to tell you how we will get there.’ And she did.”
It helps that Melanie Mirnyi is a teenager, only a few years younger than some players competing on tour. She is, by her own observations at tournaments, the oldest child of any player currently on tour. That makes her father, 40, a foremost expert on combining parenting and tennis.
For 13 years and 4 months, Mirnyi, a father of four, has carefully negotiated this balance of career and family. At first, when Melanie was a toddler, she and Mirnyi’s wife, Ksenia, traveled the globe to watch Mirnyi play. But once Melanie entered school, the Mirnyi children mostly remained at home, either in Florida or in his native Belarus.
“Halloween,” Mirnyi said with a sigh. “I always miss Halloween. It seems like such an exciting holiday for the kids, and they prepare for weeks in advance. But I’m always in Paris at that time of year. Sometimes I feel guilty, and it’s the toughest thing.”
Many athletes are not fortunate enough to play long enough for their children to fully understand their jobs. That kind of longevity, until recently, has been unusual in tennis. But Mirnyi has extended his career by excelling at doubles; he has won six Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, and is currently No. 37 in the ATP doubles rankings.
Mirnyi and his wife have two girls, Melanie and 11-year-old Petra, and two boys, Demid, 8, and Trophym, 3. All four typically spend the school year in Sarasota, Fla., and the summer in Belarus, which is Mirnyi’s base for tournaments on the European circuit. But whenever the tour schedule allows, he tries to find ways to take the whole gang to work.
Planning the family’s travel is a job in itself. When the Mirnyis hit the road, they need to find airline seats for six, a rental van and hotel managers who will do their best to arrange a series of adjoining rooms. Years ago, it was incumbent on Ksenia to look after the kids on the tournament grounds, though Nikolai Mirnyi, Max’s father and coach, helped out.
Now the three older children are mature enough to look after themselves. At the Miami Open last month, Melanie and Demid roamed the player lounge while their father received treatment after a match. Demid sought out Federer, Mirnyi’s former doubles partner, because he likes to snap a photograph with Federer after each of his Grand Slam titles.
“Now he has 20,” Demid said, referring to Federer’s Australian Open victory in January, “so I have to get another photo.”
For other players, family life and tennis do not always jibe so smoothly. Azarenka has been involved in a custody dispute over her 1-year-old son, Leo, and when she and the boy’s father were temporarily barred from leaving California with the child, Azarenka declined to travel to several tournaments.
Yet even in cases without conflict, Mirnyi said, “it’s tougher for the mothers.”
“It’s important to have a good support team with you,” he added. “We know that there are some difficulties with men and women and husbands and wives getting in the situation that Vika is in right now. But if you can have a big part of the family along, with mothers, brothers, sisters and grandparents, it can make it so much easier.”
When one of your children is a savvy 13-year-old, it is easier still. For the New York Open, it was Melanie’s idea to go on the special father-daughter trip because she was so eager to see “Anastasia.” She made plans a year in advance, once she learned that the tournament would be moving to New York from its traditional home in Memphis, and that it fell during a school vacation. The visit became even more memorable when Mirnyi reached his 100th tour final, and won, with Melanie in the stands.
During the post-match trophy ceremony, Mirnyi’s partner, Philipp Oswald, thanked the fans, the tournament organizers and the pair’s coach: Melanie.
“That was just an extra wave of boom,” she said.
Mirnyi and Oswald won again this month, at the United States Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston. This time Petra made the trip, and served as honorary coach. Mirnyi thanked her on court, too.
But as much as he cherishes those moments, Mirnyi said his favorite time was his brief off-season in November and December.
“For a month and a half, I am the happiest father alive,” he said. “When they want to play ball I play ball. When they want to play dolls, I play dolls. And I do that with a smile on my face, because I know there are millions of fathers around the world that have to wake up at 6 and go to work.”
But then comes January, when Mirnyi trundles off to Australia, California and Europe. He will turn 41 in July, and he said at the Miami Open that he would play as long as he was performing well.
The debate over retirement has percolated in his mind for years, long enough that Melanie can now weigh in as any reasonable adult might.
“It will be kind of sad when he just stops,” she said. “But I don’t want him to hurt himself or get really tired. I’ll support whatever he decides.”
For now, Mirnyi has decided to set an example as a hard-working parent facing obstacles, experiencing losses as well as wins and balancing a life that few athletes’ children are old enough to fully appreciate in real time.
“No matter what they do in life, whether it is athletes, musicians or scientists, there are things to overcome,” he said. “Hopefully, they see me doing that every day. Even though I am still a tennis player, I am still a father.”
Published at Thu, 19 Apr 2018 22:17:21 +0000