The champion that tennis lost

By Natalia Bykanova

“No,” she said the first time I called her. “Let bygones be bygones. Everything is nearly forgotten. I live a very peaceful and quiet life.”

Natalia Chmyreva, the most promising young player of the mid 1970’s, was polite but did not want to talk to the press. She hasn’t given an interview since her 25th birthday, when she quit the sport with not half of her talent realized.
She surrendered the third time I called her. “You can come if you need it so badly”, she said at last.
The former Soviet champion lives in Moscow in a three-room apartment together with her parents and a black cat named Musia. She does not attend any tennis tournaments and even the Kremlin Cup men’s tournament held in Moscow each November fails to draw her attention. “I’m overfed with tennis,” said Natasha “Once it made me the happiest person and once it made me the most miserable.”

“Natasha never fitted into our system,” claims Michael Chesalov, her former hitting partner. “Unlike the disciplined Olga Morozova, Natasha could never keep within the bounds.” In 1980, having won all the winter domestic tournaments, Natasha was expelled from the USSR Federation Cup team and dared to ask the sports bosses why.
“What did you do in Mexico last year?” she heard in reply.
“Just won the World Student Games,” answered the champion.
“What did you do there?” The tone of questioning became threatening. Natasha slammed the door. Her disqualification lasted a whole year.

Few people openly supported Chmyreva at that time. They were afraid that they would lose the opportunity to play abroad if they put in a word for an unwanted person.
Chmyreva was not the only Soviet athlete that was punished with disqualification for spending time with western friends at a western disco. At that time, Russians abroad had to live only in groups, so that everybody was easy to spot. Otherwise one had to write a report detailing where and with whom one spent time. Natasha never wrote such reports. She only wrote about her victories and impressions of tournaments she participated in.

To enter the journalism department of Moscow University, one had to produce at least five published pieces to the examining commission. Chmyreva became a student in 1975 and graduated in 1985, spending twice as much time as one needed for the degree because of tennis. These ten years included the rise and fall of the great Soviet tennis hope.

The rise of the young Muscovite was as swift as her game. Her mother, Svetlana Sevastianova, chief and coach of the “Dynamo” tennis club in Moscow, and her father Yuri Chmyrev, track and field coach, dreamed of making a world star out of their daughter from the time she was seven. All the family talks centered around Natasha’s great future.

Svetlana had her own definite approach to her child’s upbringing. “We didn’t want our daughter to have any complexes. She was the best. Why shouldn’t she know it and behave accordingly, like a queen of tennis?”
All this, combined with a lively emotional nature, resulted in some extraordinary gestures from Natasha. “She never chose her words and could thus hurt somebody unconsciously,” remembers a former rival. Chmyreva could carelessly abuse an umpire, or change her shirt without going to the locker room. She was the first to shock conservative Moscow audiences by playing without a bra and it was Chmyreva who introduced to Russia a new on-court hairstyle: she tied up her loose red hair with a band like an American Indian.
“What a controversial person you are,” Ted Tinling used to say to her, and, fittingly, he always used contrasting colours when making Natasha’s dresses: white and black, pink and black, light blue and black. Natasha keeps them all washed, ironed and untouched in a wardrobe.
Chmyreva brandished an athletic game more often seen in men’s tennis and her rare sense of the ball meant that she had the ability to play any stroke. On hard courts it was practically impossible to stop her. A hurricane.

Natalia Chymreva

Natasha was used to risk, since she spent most of her childhood climbing trees and jumping from garage roofs. On court, she always rushed forward, enjoying the taste of risky flight that the serve-volley game gave her. The famous theoretician of Soviet tennis, Professor Semen Beltis-Geiman, patronized Natasha. To him, Chmyreva was the personification of what he considered the ideal tennis player.
The professor introduced a new scoring system in domestic junior tournaments in the ‘70’s. For the volley or service winner, the umpire would award two points instead of one. That’s how he tried to stimulate an active, aggressive game. For the two years that this system was functioning, it took Natasha not more than several minutes to beat her opponents.
With the rise of Chris Evert, tennis fashion changed totally. Most of the newcomers imitated her style, but not Chmyreva. At a World Team tennis event in 1977, she beat Evert twice, signaling a wider victory for the adventurous player over the mechanical baseliner. In 1975, a 19-year-old Martina Navratilova did not return to Czechoslovakia after an American tour. Natasha always returned. “My parents and friends live in the Soviet Union, I have too many roots in this country,” Chmyreva replied to those who asked her why she didn’t defect. Natasha had more complexes than she thought.

Chmyreva returned to the USSR after that World Team Tennis event in 1977, knowing fairly well that it was her last time in the United States. Preparing for the 1980 Olympic Games, Soviet rulers forbade Soviet athletes from participating in competitions in which athletes from the Republic of South Africa took part. The USSR were afraid that black African nations would boycott the Games. But as it happened, it was Africa that was fully represented in Moscow. The whole civilized world ignored the 22nd century Olympiad because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pre-Olympic prohibition closed the world arena to Soviet players, as practically every tournament had players from South Africa. At the last tournament played by Soviets abroad, the situation turned dramatic.

“I don’t want to recall it. I felt very much ashamed,” said Natasha. Olga Morozova agreed to talk about it. “It was in Washington in the first round of doubles competition that we had opponents from South Africa. We couldn’t play and had to think of an excuse. So we finally said that Natasha had stomach troubles and skipped the match. In the singles, Natasha had a South African opponent in the second round. She didn’t play. At press conferences we were bombarded with questions and had to lie. Natasha couldn’t stand it and got very nervous because of the necessity to lie all the time.”

When the Iron Curtain slammed down shut behind her, the 18-year-old Chmyreva was ranked 13th in the world. She never got over this step. Having won by that time all the world junior tournaments except the French Open, which she was never sent to, holding two junior Wimbledon crowns and beating half the top 10 world players, she was shot down at the start of her flight and never recovered from the blow. The steeper the flight, the more painful the fall.
Morozova was sceptical when assessing the potential of her former opponent. “Natasha had a lack of self-control and an unbalanced character,” said Olga. “It’s hard for me to say whether she could have achieved more or not. Her character could lead her to failure.”
But the unbalanced Chmyreva at the age of 15 beat the very balanced Morozova right after her great success at Wimbledon ’74, where Olga lost only to Evert in the final. Three years later, Natasha won two matches against Chris, the iron lady of tennis.
Alexander Bogomolov, Natasha’s former mixed partner, thinks differently: “Chmyreva became unbalanced only when she understood she was not allowed to have a perspective of her own, due to the country’s policy. She knew she could achieve more and the impossibility of realizing her emotional and physical talents caused stress.”

Soviet officials never displayed generosity when it came to the money sports stars earned. When, for reaching the semi-final of the Virginia Slims of Chicago in ’77 Natasha earned $5000 prizemoney, sports leaders decided that $280 would be more than enough for her. But it wasn’t the final figure, as they kept back the price of living allowances. As a result she had $180 out of her $5000. Very fair arithmetic, isn’t it? At that time, any talk of prizemoney was considered disgraceful. Russians were all brought up to false morality. Nowadays we reap the fruits of that idiocy. But when you have a great aim to sustain you, even money is something you forget about. “It was all the same to me to eat a hamburger for lunch or a good piece of beef. The only real thing was the victory,” explained Natasha.

Although Chmyreva was very excitable in her play, her emotions never spread beyond the tennis court. At school she was known more as the best student in English class: she still knows the language perfectly. “ It seems to me that sometimes emotional behavior on the court was the result of the great desire of her parents to make her a great player,” said Alexander Bogomolov. “The aim to win by any means was set up before the girl and implemented in her mind too early. Children can’t stand such constant pressure and stresses are inevitable.
At 15, Chmyreva won through the qualifying at Wimbledon but wasn’t included in the main draw of the tournament. Englishmen thought that the All England Championships were not child’s play, even if the child won the right to participate. Times change.

In Melbourne at the 1975 Australian Open, Chmyreva reached the semi-finals and on centre court lost a tough match to Martina Navratilova, who was two years older. Most other tennis stars at the time were of mature age and Natasha looked like an infant prodigy among them.
Natasha first felt herself like a beautiful lady and not just an awkward teen at a White House reception. “In 1976 at the Virginia Slims tournament of the best 16 players,” remembers Natasha, “I was welcomed by President Ford. There were luxurious limousines that took us to the White House and a portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy on the wall. Ford shook me by the hand and asked something about Breshnev.” The Soviet leader preferred hockey to tennis and never invited tennis players to Georgevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

After 1977, Chmyreva trained with all her might so that she would still be in contention for the top after the Moscow games in 1980. In 1978 she won the championships of the USSR, in 1979 the World Student Games. By the time the Moscow games were over, Chmyreva was only 22 and had time again to conquer world tennis. The term of her disqualification had come to an end.
But at that time, Olga Morozova became the head coach of the USSR national team and at the first coaches’ meeting declared: ”I need Chmyreva only as a hitting partner for the young promising players.” So Chmyreva’s career was ended.
Olga dreamed of creating a teenaged national team which would reach the top of world tennis. The dream came true and her players twice played in the final of the Federation Cup. But not Natasha. At that time there was no other way for Soviet tennis players to participate in pro events abroad other than as a member of the Soviet team.
That was the heaviest blow. It took Chmyreva years to overcome the deep stress caused by the failure of all her hopes and the impossibility of self-realization. The former coach of Andrei Chesnokov, Tatiana Naumko, in discussing the way in which the Soviet tennis system stifled individual talents, remarked very correctly, “We’ll never have our own McEnroe in the Soviet Union”. It is a comment pertinent to Chmyreva’s situation. So Natasha lives with no great interest for life, reading, watching videos, chatting with friends and never asking, “Who won Wimbledon this year ?”

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