Friday, February 3, 2017

Volynets makes a name for herself at 15

Katie Volynets poses at home in Walnut Creek in the San Francisco Bay Area
with her most prized trophies. They include two for winning back-to-back
international tournaments in Florida in December and two gold balls for
winning national titles. Photo by Paul Bauman
   This is the last in a three-part series on San Francisco Bay Area teenage phenoms CiCi Bellis and Katie Volynets.
   Katie Volynets wasn't born to play tennis. It just seems that way.
   Has there ever been a more appropriate name for a tennis player? For any athlete?
   In tennis, Volynets surpasses even Anna Smashnova, not to mention Margaret Smith Court, the father-son pair of Syd and Carsten Ball, and Tennys Sandgren.
   Smashnova, a 40-year-old native of the former Soviet Union who played for Israel, peaked at No. 15 in the world in 2003.
   Court, a 74-year-old Australian, holds the records for most Grand Slam titles in singles (24) and overall (62 in singles, doubles and mixed doubles). The singles mark is in jeopardy after Serena Williams pulled within one in the recent Australian Open, but the overall record appears unassailable.
   Syd Ball, 67, reached the doubles final in the 1974 Australian Open with fellow Aussie Bob Giltinan. Carsten, a 29-year-old native of Newport Beach in Southern California who plays for Australia, advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Open with fellow towering left-hander Chris Guccione of Australia.
   Sandgren, an American with Swedish heritage who's ranked No. 194, is named for his great grandfather, not tennis.
   Volynets, 15, said her peers don't tease her about her name.
   "They like my last name, and I love my last name because it has 'volley' and 'nets' in it," Volynets said with a big smile, flashing her braces, recently in the dining room of her family's comfortable two-story house in Walnut Creek.
   Then she added with a giggle, "I think my last name is pretty cool."
   The name would be even better if Volynets were a volleyer. Alas, like virtually everyone these days, she relies on her groundstrokes. And no one is better at it in the girls 16s in the United States than Volynets, who's ranked No. 1.
   In December, Volynets became the first girl to win the 16s in the Eddie Herr International Championships and Orange Bowl in the same year. The tournaments were held in consecutive weeks in Bradenton, Fla., on hardcourts and Plantation, Fla., on clay, respectively.
   Even though Volynets has grown up on hardcourts, winning the Orange Bowl to sweep didn't surprise her.
   "I've been training a lot harder, and I really, really wanted to win this Orange Bowl and the Eddie Herr," said Volynets, who reached the semifinals of the USTA National Championships in the 16s last year, won the 14s in 2015 and won the 12s in 2014. "That was my goal at that moment. They're big international tournaments, and I knew it would be awesome to win them."
   With her San Francisco Bay Area roots, talent, mental ability and small size (5-foot-4 1/2, 105 pounds), Volynets is reminiscent of CiCi Bellis, 17.
   Bellis, who grew up in Atherton on the other side of the bay, is by far the youngest player in the world's top 100 at No. 72. She and Volynets are friends.
Volynets displays the trophy she earned for
winning the Orange Bowl 16-and-under title
on clay in Plantation, Fla., in December.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   "I saw her in Florida (three) months ago," Volynets said. "Every time we see each other, we have a nice conversation, and sometimes we text each other. We hit once five years ago."
   When asked if she thinks she can be as good as or better than Bellis, Volynets said diplomatically with a chuckle, "I'm not sure what the future holds for me."
  Volynets conceded, however, that her goal is "to become a top professional in the world." She doesn't regard her size as a liability.
   "I'm used to playing with my size, I'm still growing, and I know there's always a way to win," Volynets said.
   Volynets' parents, Andrey and Anna, are only 5-8 and 5-1 1/2, respectively.
   "You never know," Andrey said, regarding Katie's height. "My father was 5-11, my grandfather was about 6 foot, and one of my brothers is about 6-2."
   Katie compensates for her small size with extraordinary mental toughness. She saved five match points in the semifinals of the USTA 14 nationals in Peachtree City, Ga., in 2015. She defeated Angelica Blake of Boca Raton, Fla., in the quarterfinals of the recent Eddie Herr after losing the first set 6-0.
   "This is an area where Katie is really far in front of most kids," one of her two coaches, Richard Tompkins of Tompkins Tennis International, proclaimed in 2015 after Volynets won the NorCal Junior Sectional 16s in Sacramento at 13. "You tell her to do something, and if you explain to her why, she just does it without hesitating.
   "Katie has many, many routines in place. She has routines that she goes through before she actually practices, and she has very strict routines that she goes through before tournament matches. She does the exact same warmup, and she goes through the same process when she's doing her mental preparation."
   Also, Volynets has elaborate rituals once play begins in tournaments and even practice.
   "In between every single point, she goes through three stages," Tompkins revealed. "The first stage is she experiences the emotion, whether it's negative or positive. When she picks up the balls, she goes through stage two, which is calming herself down by telling herself it's OK, thinking relaxing thoughts and taking deep breaths. Before the next point starts, she does a practice swing on her forehand or backhand simulating perfect technique, and then she pumps herself back up by telling herself a slogan that she says before every single point, and it makes her feel great and strong.
   "She does this in between every single point in practice and tournaments day after day after day."
   Volynets said she and her parents started the practice swings, her coaches devised the mental routines, and she conceived the slogan, which no one would divulge.
Neither of Volynets' parents, Andrey and Anna, played
tennis while growing up in Ukraine. Anna, however,
was an elite swimmer. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Neither of Volynets' parents, Andrey and Anna, played tennis while growing up in Ukraine.
   "We played a little (there) after we got married," Anna said.
   Anna swam at the masters level, the highest below the Olympics. Andrey played ping pong in medical school and worked as an anesthesiologist for nine years in Ukraine. The couple also has a 26-year-old son, Andrey, an electrical engineer in Dallas who played club tennis at UC Davis.
   The family emigrated to Walnut Creek, where they had relatives, in November 1996, five years after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union and 10 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in northern Ukraine.
   "It was a very complicated time," Andrey Sr. said. "Imagine that the United States collapsed and became 50 independent countries which basically did not communicate with each other or poorly communicated. So that's a very difficult situation. We had a choice, and we chose to emigrate."
   Just over 20 years later, Ukraine's troubles persist. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, and pro-Russian separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine the following month. Fighting with Ukrainian forces has continued since then.
   "It's a hard feeling," Andrey Sr. lamented. "I just regret that such things happen and Ukraine is in such a difficult situation, but they are strong people. They will survive."
   Except perhaps the nation's many cancer patients. Doctors must pay bribes to service life-saving equipment, according to a 2015 article in The Guardian newspaper of Great Britain calling Ukraine "the most corrupt nation in Europe."
   Andrey Sr. switched to Anna's profession, software engineering, in the Bay Area. He said it would have taken too many years to receive a license to practice medicine in the United States.
   "Our son was almost 7 when we came here," Andrey Sr. explained. "I had a lot of responsibilities, family commitments."
   Katie began playing tennis at 5 at Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek.
   "Sometimes on weekends, my parents went to the park to just hit," she said. "I came along with them and brought all my toys and things so I wouldn't be bored. One day, I asked if I could try. I took my dad's racket and tried to hit a few balls and really, really liked it. Soon, my dad got me a little racket, and I was really excited to try. Ever since then, I've loved it."
   Especially the mental aspect.
   "I like that it's an individual sport because I'm the only one to blame if it goes wrong and I know what to fix, whereas if it was a big team sport, it's everyone who participates," Katie said.
   The game came naturally to her.
   "When I started, I didn't whiff," she said. "I made contact."
   There was no plan, however, to produce a great player.
   "It just happened," Andrey Sr. said.
Volynets shows the gold balls she won for winning
the national 14s in 2015 and 12s in 2014. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   Katie won her first tournament at 7 in nearby Lafayette in the 10-and-unders.
   "I signed her up for 8 (and under)" Andrey Sr. recalled. "The tournament director called me and said, 'She's the only one (in the draw). If you would like, I'll move her to 10. I said, 'She's too young.' He said, 'She can try.' I said OK. She played a year or two in the 10s until she moved to the 12s."
   Initially, Katie played in area tournaments.
   "Then to give her an opportunity to win more and play better, we expanded and expanded," Anna recalled. "We decided, 'Let's go try the winter nationals in Arizona.' It was a process: 'Oh, she's winning everything here; let's expand and go to some more tournaments.' "
   Katie, though, was limited in the number of out-of-town tournaments she could play because she attended public school through eighth grade.
   "It was hard to balance because they were pretty strict on the number of misses (missed days) a year," Anna said.
   Katie now has more time to travel as a ninth grader at Clayton Valley Charter High School, five miles (eight kilometers) away in Concord.
   "She actually goes to school; she's not home-schooled," Anna clarified.
   That's unusual for a top junior.
   "I feel like it's better schooling," Katie said. "I also get to be social, which I feel is pretty important so I can balance my life with tennis and some social (interaction)."
   Many top juniors also leave home to attend a renowned tennis academy such IMG in Bradenton, Fla. Not Volynets.
   "I really like my coaches and the program I'm doing right now," said Volynets, who also works with Mark Orwig of the Moraga Country Club.
   Katie didn't hesitate when asked if she has a tennis idol.
   "I love Roger Federer," gushed Volynets, who has never met the Swiss star but has seen him play twice in Indian Wells. "He's my favorite tennis player. He's very focused and very smart. He always has a strategy. His strokes are very smooth, and I like the way they flow."
   Dedicated, articulate, upbeat and polite, Volynets is unusually mature for a 15-year-old. She doesn't use the word "like" six times per sentence -- or hardly at all, for that matter. If fact, she and her parents speak Russian at home. During an hour-long interview with the three of them, she listens attentively without leaving her chair or fidgeting.
   "She's just a very focused kid, very responsible kid and very hard-working kid," Andrey Sr. said.
   Katie has always been that way, her father added.
   "When she was very young, it was project after project. She was going to art classes and doing a lot of painting. She was pushing us to buy some stuff from Michaels (art supplies). She was doing bracelets, she was doing necklaces, she was drawing animals. She'd finish one and start a new project. She never had a single (idle) second and managed it herself," Andrey Sr. said.
   Even now, Katie plays the piano when she's home from tournaments.
   "I used to be really good, but then I went all tennis, so I stopped taking lessons," she said. "Now I just play on my own so I keep some skills."
   If Volynets' fitting name is mentioned among the top pros someday, that will be music to her ears.

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