ATHLETE SPOTLIGHT: VIKA, PART III
Part II of this three-part series by Hungry Fan guest contributor, Kurt Brungardt.
Off the Court and Beyond: Manhattan Beach, California
A few days before Team Vika embarked to Australia, she invited Mike, me, and her massage therapist, Stephanie, over for dinner. When she’s not training or competing her warrior side disappears. She cooks a healthy gourmet meal. It’s clear she’s a foodie. She makes salmon marinated in a miso sauce, a quinoa stir fry with egg-whites, a baked free-range chicken with a wine sauce, a mixed-green salad with avocado, peppers and tomatoes. Her eating habits are a key piece of her training program.
She serves dinner buffet style. In the kitchen area is a water filtration machine that would make any health nut weep with joy. I wish I’d brought over a bunch of empty bottles (glass of course) to fill and take home. Then there’s her juicer and the Vitamix. If ever there is an item to covet, it’s a Vitamix.
After dinner, Vika asks if anyone wants coffee. I request the Bulletproof. It’s my big chance to get a glimpse of the ingredients and a taste of the secret recipe. All I can gather from my angle of observation is for the butter she uses ghee. I’m sure it’s grass-fed organic ghee. The coffee is delicious. It’s smooth and creamy with all the good fats. My brother and Stephanie have a tea.
Over coffee and tea, Vika takes out her phone and shows us several versions of the portrait she’s having painted by a Los Angeles artist named James Haunt. She likes Warhol and the portrait is done in a pop-art style. She asks us to choose the one we like best. Vika says she’s already decided. I make my choice. I choose Vika’s pick. She likes the color scheme. “The yellow is like sun; blue is like water; red, grey are like earth,” she says.
After dinner we watch a movie, Law Abiding Citizen with Jamie Foxx.
My brain is infused with too many healthy fats (blame it on the coffee’s grass-fed ghee) to just passively watch a movie. Instead, I listen to the ocean outside. I reflect on the evening. If Vika wasn’t an elite tennis player with the hot spotlight of being a former number one, I would say she is kind of an international hipster-artist-foodie, more light than dark with her Hello Kitty purse and bright (often pink) clothes (no brooding black), and her willful upbeat attitude. “Every morning I try to wake up with a big smile on my face to start a good day,” she says. “Then I take a little time to do my own things, to focus my energy and attention, to see what I can do to improve — get a little better every day and push forward to a place I’ve never been before.” She aspires to look toward the light.
The next day, after she finishes one butt load of a workout, Vika invites Mike and I to lunch. She takes us to a healthy, organic Japanese restaurant called Rice in Manhattan Beach.
For Vika, what’s already happened in her life creates perspective. Born in 1989, in Minsk, she comes from a working class family. Her father was a driving instructor and her mother worked at a tennis club, enabling her to get a racquet in Vika’s hands when she was seven to help her burn off energy. “From the beginning, I really wanted to play all the time, and I wanted to play professionally,” In 2004, when she was fifteen, it became clear she was a gifted.
Seizing the moment, her mother arranged, with the help of Russian hockey star Nikolai Khabibulin (Vika’s mother was friends with Khabitbulin’s wife), for Vika to move to Scottsdale, Arizona, where she could train with top coaches. In 2005, Vika won the junior Australian Open. This began her move up the ranks: in 2006 she cracked the top 100, in 2007 the top 30, in 2008 the top 20, and in 2009 the top 10.
From the start she had to perform when the stakes and the pressure was high. As a kid, if she missed balls on the practice wall or didn’t perform at a high level on the court, the next up-and-comer would take her spot. When she came to America, if she didn’t win at the junior level, she would have gotten a one-way ticket back to Minsk. And when she turned pro, if she didn’t climb up the ranks, her dream would have quickly faded or she would have become a middle-of-the-pack pro, fighting to qualify and make enough money to stay on the tour. Vika has always rose to the occasion.
During lunch she shows us pictures of the country house she built in Belarus. The countryside is beautiful. The house is really nice, not gaudy, tasteful. A lot of the pictures are of the garden. She’s excited about having a garden.
And she’s excited that her grandma will live there. It was a conversation with her grandmother in 2011, when she was going through a tough stretch on the court that inspired her to keep playing. Her grandmother gave her a tough love history lesson on the days when Stalin ran Russia. Professor Andrew Savchenko (Ph.D., Brown University), an expert on Belarusian culture, in a phone interview, explained how Belarusians have their feet planted in two worlds simultaneously: Europe and the West, and the traditional Russian totalitarian system. This gives them a flexible personality and attitude, both tough and open. Savchenko said the country promotes an attitude can be summed up by the Belarusian phrase pamiarkouny, which means tolerant.
Vika is battling in the big wide-open world (not bounded by east or west) to define her identity. She is both guarded and open, badass and sweet, warrior and caretaker, expanding and integrating. There’s a moment in an elite athlete’s life, after she’s been to the top of the mountain, when things get existential. When the, “what’s the meaning of life questions” get asked: How important are relationships and love in relation to work passion? Do I want children? How do things change after the adrenaline of a dream achieved fades? How does the way one looks at life change after a broken heart? Only the unlucky ones never get their heart broken.
For Vika, 2015 will be more accurately judged after the U.S. Open. The good news is she’s healthy, and she’s a threat on the court, a dreaded early draw, beating top ten players. At this point, the idea of a ‘comeback” morphs into another idea — a bigger, more sustainable idea, as she bonds with the new members of her team. It becomes about evolution, about embracing the process, moment by moment. The pain and joy of each moment, then letting it go. Evolution is badass. Evolution is bigger than comeback. Evolution takes time. Ask Darwin.