The day when my future in tennis was stolen
I honestly thought that December 17th would be the last night of my life.
I was 20 years old when it all happened. I was so disappointed thinking about how I would die so young.
I finished the season as world number 6 in WTA rankings in 2007. It was a magical year. A month before I reached semifinals in my first WTA Finals, classifying in the same group of Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic.
My house was not in the center of Moscow, it was a bit outside of the city. My mom and my little brother were staying there and that evening I arrived with my dad from the exhibition in Belgium against world number 1 Justine Henin. I had just come back from an exhibition in Belgium.
We were exhausted and we went to sleep. Suddenly, at 3AM, I was woken up. There were five huge guys in my house. I was laying down and I could not understand much of what was happening. They were wearing masks, dark clothes and looked huge.
I heard a scream from another room. I knew it was from my dad. My immediate reaction was to start to panic. To be honest, I thought those were my last moments. That seemed like the end to me.
On the night of 17 to 18 December 2007 at Birch Street, Moscow, one car stopped abruptly. One of the men climbed over the fence and he opened the gate. The group entered there, where the housemaid lived.
We had a big house and also a garage that is attached to it. You can enter the house from the garage. They did not break the door. Instead, they went to the small guest house after climbing the fence and scared the housekeeper to press the button of the garage to get in our house. Honestly, we are not even sure if the housemaid was involved.
What I did not know at that time was that they had just hit my father in the head with a gun. They were heavily armed with guns and knives.
Everything was really scary. They knew who I was, they knew I had just won a Rolex from the exhibition I had played the previous day. This was not a random robbery. It must have been planned for quite some time.
My instinct was to try go out of my room, but two strong men handcuffed me with a cord. They tied my wrists so tight that I could not feel my hand for days. The robbers threatened us at knifepoint and beat my parents to clear our safe. Suddenly one of the men that was in the small guest house with the housekeeper started to rush the others.
I could not see all of them, but I heard it all from my room. It happened really fast. They took everything they could find. And the robbers found a lot before they ran away.
I wonder what would have happened if I had not arrived at our house that night, like we did. But my mom and my brother would be there alone. It was a stressful situation for all of us. My dad got really injured. His shoulder was broken and he had to go through surgery. I thank God my little brother was sleeping in the other room and they did not wake him up.
My parents still live in that house. I really do not like it. After that, I started to feel really insecure in Moscow, my own city. They still live in that house somehow. But I do not want to spend time there. Now that I have Kira, my 2 years old daughter, my parents ask me to let her come to their house. And I am not OK with it. She can go for three or four hours during the day, nothing more.
Honestly I wanted to sell that house. I still remember that night very vividly. But my parents are used to living there, they did get more security, but I can’t see myself there anymore.
I was a top 10, playing the best tennis of my life when everything started to fall apart. I think that the robbery had a huge impact in my career, to be honest. That day was definitely the hardest time in my life.
2007 was an amazing year. I thought next season would be even better. Until that day when the following year was particularly affected. After the robbery, my career became much worse. This story affected me a lot. That is why I needed some support from my team and my parents.
But I am still happy that I could play tennis again since I thought that night would be the last in my life. I was pleased that I still could compete. Unfortunately, the quality of tennis was not that high.
I did ask myself a lot of times “why did it happen to me?”. Some things in life you just can’t control. It could have been way worse. Hey, I am still alive, my parents are alive, my brother is here… they are healthy. We continue to be involved in tennis, I am a tennis commentator now and I live in Ukraine.
That was almost 13 years ago and we are not sure the right people were caught. People like these should be in jail. But I am not sure the guys that are in jail have actually been in my house. They were in masks. Police said that they caught the group, different nationalities… we did suspect maybe someone close was involved because we were changing the roof of the garage at the time and that’s how they got in.
I did not even have time to assimilate much about that night at the time. Australian Open would start in one month and I could not feel my right arm or my right hand. I went to all different kinds of doctors. All the preparation for the new season was already screwed up before it even began.
When I started to travel, I got asked all the time to remember every single little detail in the big interviews. It was hard. I wanted to just let that go, so it was really unpleasant to remember. They always asked me how they got in my house, what they said, how they were… it was really uncomfortable, to be honest. I do understand journalists need the story, so I was OK, but it was challenging to go back to that moment when all I wanted was to forget it.
I had also some kind of expectations during 2008 and it was getting worse and worse. It felt like it never ended. It definitely affected me. I lost ranking, lost all the points… I could not prepare for the tournaments. I think my main mistake was that I had to take a break and practice for two or three weeks and then play tournaments. But I did not do that because I wanted to play more, more and more. I did not work.
Something I would definitely change in my career if I could would be my schedule. It is tough for young players. When you are 18, you feel better than when you are 38. But still, I think there is a limit, there’s always a limit, you can’t push yourself.
When you pass that line, there are consequences. I was pushing, pushing… and then I got sick, injuries or things like that. I had to be really prepared physically, but, of course, like all professional sports, it doesn’t help your body. You are not becoming healthier, you are actually losing your health.
I still remember about the match in 2011 against Caroline Wozniacki in Dubai when I collapsed on court. I was really sick before the tournament. I was in Moscow when my stomach started hurting and I had a feeling that I was really sick. My parents warned not to play but I insisted.
Don’t ask me how I won that first match against Daniela Hantuchova. In the next round, I played against Caroline, I lost the first set, then I was up and felt that my heart started beating really quickly. After that, I felt a really hard pain in the head as I fell down. I retired from that match slightly after collapsing.
It happened again twice, in the following tournaments: Indian Wells and Stuttgart. I was really insecure since I did not know what was going on with me. Doctors told me I had an ear infection, that sometimes when you have ear infection and stomach infection, it comes together.
My main mistake was choosing to play Dubai, I should have taken some rest. I was pushing it too hard and then I got some problems with blood pressure during my playing schedule. I stayed at the hospital for two weeks after Stuttgart and I started to feel better, so I did not collapse anymore until the end of my career.
I retired when I was pretty young. Usually you want to play until at least 30 years old. I quit when I was 25 because of chronic back injury. I still have some physical issues but it is okay for normal life. It was a successful career but I could have done better.
As a coach, I learned that some little details you cannot change. I can give advice, how to recover a mentally and physically, but tennis is a matter of person, it’s like if the person can fight and if she is really desperate to win. In Russia we say a coach can teach you how to play tennis, but he can’t teach you how to win.
Russians have this mentality hard to explain. We like to fight and sometimes we are really hard on ourselves. Our athletes are really hungry. They want to win so bad, more than their opponents. Being a professional athlete it is the only chance to see the world, to have a better life for some of us. We get used to fighting since we are kids. It is in our blood. I remember when I played the category under 12 and kids were aggressive. Sometimes they were too mean. I felt that whenever I was playing. It makes you stronger. You feel it in you that to make it you must fight with all your heart.
I got in the top 5 in September of 2007. I had just reached the semifinals of the US Open, after two quarterfinals in Australian Open and Roland Garros at that same season.
My parents introduced me to tennis. They played for fun and we went on vacation to Southern Russia, where I took my racquet the first time to play with my parents. My dad was a professional football player, but he quit when he was 21 years old to start his own business. He absolutely loves sports and when we came back from that trip, they put me in a tennis school twice a week. I remember always losing.
It made me really unhappy. I was losing to other girls because I was not practicing enough in the beginning. But I changed that around with hard work. When I was 14, I won the National Championships. Most importantly, it made me believe that I could become a professional tennis player.
I remember very clearly when I traveled to Miami with my father to play Orange Bowl when I was 16. No, I did not play well there. Despite losing in the 3rd round, my father said “OK, we try professional tennis”. Honestly, I did not get it. I did not feel well during that tournament and he wanted me to play professionally. I trusted him and gave it a shot, though. That is how I started my journey.
He was right, by the way. In the following year I started as the 371th in the WTA rankings and finished in the top 100.
At 17, I was desperate to play the French Open and did not get into the qualifying. I was the 3rd alternate and did not make it. The same happened in Wimbledon, one month later. When I did get the chance, at the US Open, I grabbed it.
It was my first time playing a Grand Slam, but I managed to go through qualies and reach the 3rd round to break in top 100. I beat Myskina in the 2nd round and she was the number 4 in the world. We had a bonus points system. I got in the top 100 because of the bonus points. When I won that match I thought: Ok, I can be top 10 for sure.
Don’t you think it was an easy path. If I had to define myself in one word I would say hard-worker. I always tried to give my best in court, no matter what. I was not the strongest, I was not the fastest, I was not the biggest hitter.
I had to think… a lot. My game was about tactic, about my technique. At the same time, I did defeat my opponents by fighting until the end. I tried to be inspired by wrestling, a sport I particularly love. They are almost fighting for their lives. My mother always told me “no matter how you play, just try your best and fight”. OK, mom. Thanks, that was great advice.
Everyone remembers a particular match, against Israel in Fed Cup, 2008. The opponent wasn’t that dangerous, but it was a very emotional match. The Israeli tennis fans were not really tennis fans, they were football fans. They were screaming and clapping between the serves, booing… and I got mad. I mean, really mad. And with me, I have this thing. When I get mad, I start to play better. My dad says “OK, you have to be really angry”. So sometimes I made myself angry somehow to win. Actually, I feel a bit ashamed and uncomfortable watching this video. Like, it is not possible to scream like that.
Some players can’t think on court. They have so much power that they are taught not to think too much. If they do, they can’t make the right decisions. I know lots of coaches that teach their players to play like that. Don’t think, just hit the ball as hard as they can. I was the opposite. If I did not think, I would lose, without a doubt.
I do not like this concept of “you do not have to think”. You are supposed to think all the time, but it depends if it is with positivity or negativity. I studied and graduated in Psychology when I was still playing. Sports careers are short, it is not going to last until you are 70.
When you are having success, you really enjoy it. When you start to lose, well… you actually try to push yourself harder. I did do that all the time. Sometimes too much. It was hard to understand that because I was so young, travelling almost every week. Sometimes I did not know even what city I was in when I woke up.
Losing is never easy. There are too many tournaments in tennis, especially for young players. They are supposed to get these points, there are not many breaks unlike other sports. And it does punish your body sooner or later.
I did have psychological support, but it was not great. I was 23 or 24. I was studying at the time. It is hard to analyze yourself. I think at the time my team did not support like I needed.
Tennis is a lonely sport. I read Agassi’s book where he writes about loneliness and I agree 100% with that feeling. You can feel that in tournaments. Sometimes you have the impression there are so many people on site and around players, but most of the time you are talking only with your team, two or three people at maximum. And not even all them are supportive. Sometimes there is negativity, want it or not. It is not as easy as it seems.
There was also a different kind of unwanted pressure: having stalkers. When I was 16 I was playing a tournament in Georgia. My dad if Georgian and he was talking with some guys from there. One of them seemed to be a little off. After that, he started to email me. I do not know how he got my email. The emails turned into calls on my private number. The calls were not enough. He started to travel to tournaments by bus, from Georgia to Istanbul… to see me playing.
He was the aggressive type. He did not send me threats, but it was really annoying to receive these emails, calls and messages all the time. Sometimes he would even come during these tennis clinics, even in Moscow just to see closely. It came to a point where he said he came with a kid, but he does not have a kid. At least he was not with one to get in. Security did not let him in.
There is one Georgian restaurant in Moscow which my parents love. We go a lot there. And he found that out, so he came here trying to find me. And he left a cage. He said “please, if Anna would come here, give it to her”. Of course I did not take it and I asked security “please, do not let him in anymore”. I do not know what that guy can bring next time.
Unfortunate, it is not that uncommon for female tennis players. You do not know what is going on in other people’s head, you do not have control over other people. You should feel safe, especially if you are a professional athlete, you are not supposed to feel the stress – you have stress already on court – you do not need other kinds of stress.
I felt really consistent in 2007. I always felt good playing on hardcourts in the US. The surface suits my game pretty well. For tennis fans it may look like a perfect year, but for me it was not that much. I was losing matches that I could win, but I did not.
I reached the semifinals in the US Open that year, but I did suffer the toughest loss against Kuznetsova. I had expectations and I did win the first set. I wanted to play at least 50% of what I could. That was not the case. It was really big for me playing for a spot in the final of a Grand Slam at 20 years old. I was shaking with nerves and it was so windy. We both were playing incredibly awful. I just could not believe we were playing like that in a semifinal in front of a packed crowd. She beat me in the end and I was really disappointed.
I remember crying a lot that day. I was crying at the press conference, at the hotel… I mean, I cried for two, three days. In Russian, there is an expression that translates as “eating yourself”. You are eating all this negativity, all these feelings in that incredible painful situation. At some point, it is good. Because some players do not care after they lose a match, they go to a party or things like that. Most good Russian players have this reflection where they start to think about their mistakes for the better or for the worse.
That is a challenge of being a player. You are supposed to understand your tactical and technical mistakes, learn from that and change the picture without being stuck on that moment. Because if you keep thinking about that loss too much, it becomes a huge problem.
I went from number 6 to 18 in the rankings 2008, in the same year I withdrew from the Beijing Olympics. Two year later, when I was 23, I got out of the top 100 in July 2010.
In my mind I thought I could still get in the top 5 again. I tried to find my game with different strategics, changing my technique… I was really trying. The main point for me was that my staff was not really supportive. They were only supportive to congratulate. when a player is hard on himself… I was very hard on myself, thinking about these losses all the time, I was like pretty negative sometimes. Maybe too negative.
I can’t even be certain to say the most critical point since I was so hard on myself constantly.
There are two different ways to cope with your player, for example: you can be negative, you can push your player with negativity or you can make some positive notes, you can support and sometimes… At this point, I needed some support from my close ones, which I did not get. And after, when I got the chronic back injury, my career was over.
I almost had a chance to play another US Open. I was practicing with Svitolina in New Jersey in 2012 and feeling in pretty good shape. But I did not get in the qualifying. After that, I played in Tashkent, my last tournament. I had bad cramps because of the chronic injury in the back. I was screaming on court, suffering to play. At that moment I thought I should stop, at least for some time. I have never played another official match.
The first year was specially tough. I was really depressed, it was really bad. The pain was really annoying. I could not get rid of it and did not want to go through surgery. Even if I did not play tennis anymore, some doctors said that I needed surgery in my neck and lower back, to put implants in my spine to stop the pain. That made me really sad. I was only 25. I felt the pain all the time.
After that fixed my back and I started to commentate, started to think about my own academy, to see my friends more, to chat with them, to talk about different projects. It helped me a lot. I also got married, and now I have a little girl, Kira, 2 years old.
It was a tough period of my life, but this was not the end. Life continues. Now finally I have time to see the world and something else besides the tennis courts. It could be better, it could be worse. Thankfully we were able to survive that night.
I am pleased I had that moment in my career, with tennis, tennis really suits my character. Onto the next chapter.