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A Grieving Young Tennis Star Finds Solace on the Court

A Grieving Young Tennis Star Finds Solace on the Court

BRADENTON, Fla. — With her tennis career taking flight at age 17, Amanda Anisimova was abruptly grounded: out of last year’s United States Open as she grieved.

Her father, Konstantin Anisimov, was just 52 when he died of a heart attack on Aug. 19, one week before the start of the year’s final Grand Slam tournament.

Anisimov, an imposing and brainy Russian immigrant with a baritone voice, was his daughter’s longtime coach, and though he and Amanda’s mother, Olga, had recently separated and a new coaching team had been put in place, Anisimov remained in regular contact with his family.

His death at home in Aventura, Fla., came while Anisimova, an American who is one of the game’s most promising talents, was in New York preparing for the U.S. Open after her breakthrough run to the French Open semifinals earlier in the season.

Anisimova withdrew from the event and retreated to Miami with Olga and Maria Egee, her older sister, before returning briefly to competition in late September.

“It was really hard to, like, leave my house,” Anisimova said in an interview last month.

She has made major career moves of late. She has signed a long-term deal with Nike that should guarantee her several million dollars per year, though the terms have not been disclosed. She has also hired Carlos Rodríguez, one of the most successful coaches in women’s tennis, who once helped Justine Henin find her way after the death of a parent.

But Anisimova is understandably still grappling with her father’s death. When asked what she might feel comfortable sharing about him, she cradled her face in her hands and quietly cried for more than a minute before making it clear that she wanted to proceed.

“This is obviously the hardest thing I’ve had to go through and the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I don’t really talk about it with anyone,” she said. “The only thing that has helped me is just playing tennis and being on the court. That’s what makes me happy, and I know it would make him happy, so that’s the way it is.”

Ranked 22nd, she appears to be in fine form heading into the Australian Open next week, the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. Anisimova, now 18, opened the season last week by reaching the semifinals of the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. She also fulfilled a longtime goal by facing Serena Williams, who reminded Anisimova why she has been the greatest player of this era by winning 6-1, 6-1.

At nearly 6 feet tall and with one of the best two-handed backhands in the game, Anisimova is a power player who can also defend in the corners and change pace.

Her potential is clear. But no matter where she goes from here, tennis will never be quite the same, because her career was part of a family journey.

“I don’t think Amanda has gone through the mourning process completely,” Rodríguez said in Bradenton, Fla., where they were training at IMG Academy. “We have to be very careful and very sensitive and not rush things. The last few months, she has had a very difficult situation and not much time to react.”

Anisimova’s parents moved to the United States from Moscow in 1998 during a financial crisis in their home country.

They came, Konstantin Anisimov had said, in search of a better future for Maria, who was 10 at the time. They settled in Colts Neck, N.J., an affluent community known for its good school system. Maria, like her parents, spoke very little English at first, but as she learned she channeled some of her considerable energy into tennis.

In 2002, a year after Amanda was born, Maria persuaded her parents to drive the family south to Bradenton, where they made their first visit to IMG Academy, showing up unannounced at 4:30 a.m. to speak with the prominent coach Nick Bollettieri. There was no way to know that 17 years later the academy would become central to Amanda’s tennis development.

The family relocated to Miami in 2004, in part to help Maria pursue tennis more seriously, and the Anisimovs studied the game and began teaching. At first, Amanda imitated her older sister.

“If I was playing a tournament, Amanda would stand outside the fence of the court and mimic what I was doing,” Maria Egee said. “She had a little baby racket, and my parents said, ‘Right, we’ll take a shot at it.’”

Olga taught Amanda the fundamentals until she was 7, and Konstantin eventually took on the role of head coach.

“Both parents put so much into Amanda’s tennis,” said Nick Saviano, the veteran coach and a longtime adviser who was close with Konstantin Anisimov. “Its really exciting to see it all start to emerge and so very sad to know that Konstantin will not be there to enjoy seeing all his dreams come to fruition.”

Egee went on to play at the University of Pennsylvania and to work in banking, and in 2018 was on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for the finance industry.

She has played a significant role in her lone sibling’s life and career, encouraging her parents to help Amanda avoid some of the pitfalls she experienced as a young tennis player. Unlike her sister, Amanda never attended traditional school; she is in her senior year at a private online academy.

“Especially in high school, I wanted to have a social life and didn’t have time for everything, so I often felt burned out and wanted to quit tennis,” Egee said. Their parents learned from that, she said.

“It’s why my mom created a tennis camp, so Amanda could hang out with kids her own age, so she didn’t miss out on anything,” Egee said. “Many of her friends today are friends from that camp.”

Anisimov remained Amanda’s head coach until he and Olga separated. Then, Amanda left to live with her mother.

The family kept in contact, and Olga grew concerned in August when Anisimov was uncharacteristically out of touch for several days. The police were summoned when it was clear that his apartment door was locked from the inside. An officer forced the door open and found Anisimov dead on the floor.

“It came as a big surprise, completely unexpected,” said Egee, who left her New York office to be with her sister and her mother, who declined to comment for this article.

“After that, there were a lot of ups and downs and definitely some dark, bad times and a lot of things to think about,” she said. “When you lose someone at such a young age, you think about a lot of things that you regret or things you wish you said or what are the things that they wish they said before they died.”

Anisimova said her sister’s presence had been vital. “It’s obviously very difficult for all of us, but I think because we have each other, it’s made it a lot easier,” she said. “I think we’re really strong all together.”

Anisimova returned to the tour in late September for tournaments in China in Wuhan and Beijing, but struggled.

“It was a little too soon,” she said. “It was still pretty hard, and I definitely had a lot of emotions I was just trying to keep inside.”

She said she has chosen not to speak with a therapist. “I just don’t really feel comfortable talking about it,” she said. “I guess going onto the court and hitting tennis balls is how I get my feelings out, and it’s where I spent most of my time with my dad.”

While in China, she began working with Rodríguez, who is based in Beijing.

Rodríguez had been away from the tour for five years, and said he rejected “about 15” serious offers to coach and travel with women’s players. But Anisimova’s agent, Max Eisenbud, and Rodríguez would meet in Beijing every year, and with his two sons now older, Rodríguez said he was again willing to spend more time on the road.

After examining extensive footage of Anisimova’s matches, Rodríguez made it clear he was interested in working with her. Anisimova had split with Jaime Cortés, who coached her last year when she won her first WTA title in Bogotá and made her French Open run.

“I knew just a little bit about Carlos, because I’m obviously still pretty young,” Anisimova said. “But I know about his reputation and how he’s an amazing coach, I’m very grateful he’s accepted to work with me.”

For Rodríguez, there are parallels with his time coaching Henin, the Belgian star who won seven Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked No. 1.

Henin was also a teenager, just 14, when Rodríguez, a former touring pro from Argentina, began coaching her full time. Henin, like Anisimova, was bright but self-contained, particularly in the early years. Henin also dealt with family tragedy at a young age: Her mother died of cancer when she was 12.

“I always say that sometimes as a kid you have to accept the unacceptable,” said Rodríguez, who remains close with Henin. “Justine had to go through a process, and Amanda does, too.”

His coaching agreement with Anisimova runs through the Australian Open, which ends on Feb. 2, but Rodríguez and Eisenbud are hopeful that the tournament will be only the beginning.

Anisimova’s breakthrough in 2019 was partly overshadowed by two other young talents: Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in her Grand Slam singles debut, and Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian who defeated Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open.

“When I see girls close to my age doing well, like Bianca or Coco, it’s motivating in a way that if they can do it at that age then I can I do it, too,” said Anisimova, who defeated Gauff and Andreescu in junior competition.

At a practice session with Rodríguez at IMG Academy in December, Anisimova worked on tweaking her forehand technique and on generating more pace and penetration with her serve, to allow her to take earlier control of rallies. Rodríguez also wants to improve her net game, including her overhead, so she can take better advantage of the openings she creates with her baseline power.

Off the court, Anisimova’s focus is on steadily improving her fitness and avoiding further injuries.

“When you see her tennis level and physical level, there is a huge gap,” said Rodríguez, who noted that, like many tennis players, Anisimova’s left side is significantly weaker than her dominant right side. “That’s why she’s had some of these physical problems, and what I explain to everybody is, we’re not going to solve that in a month or two. It’s six months of consistent work, because you have to do it slowly. We are building a champion, but you have to give me time to set up the routines and a mind-set.”

Still, Anisimova sounds like a young woman in a hurry.

“I really think I can win a Slam in 2020,” she said. “I’ve been working as hard as I can to make that happen, and with the team I have now, I think it is possible.”

Her rise has been rapid indeed. She is the youngest player in the top 60, and as an 18-year-old she no longer has tour restrictions on the number of tournaments she can play. Her groundstrokes are booming and her game evolving.

The challenge will be to maintain her focus and momentum after a daunting few months.

“It never goes away,” she said of the grief over her father. “But you can’t change it, and you have to get back to life.”

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami.


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