In the third part of this exclusive interview, Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist, Ihor Kononenko, founder of the International Tennis Academy talks about how the critical role elite athletes play in helping the health of the nation.
Can you remember the day and moment when Dasha Snigur won the junior Wimbledon? How did you react?
Unfortunately, due to a busy work schedule, I had no opportunity to watch this match online. But in the evening I got a lot of incredible emotions from watching the Final on record. It was truly a triumph not only for Dasha and her parents, but also for our entire MTA team and the whole country. There is no tennis tournament in the world like Wimbledon and for one of our players to go over there and win it was just an incredible feeling. I would like to experience the same vivid emotions I felt then again.
There was an excitement in the whole country due to this – it was all over the news and everyone was talking about it. This is the real power of sport. It takes the usual bad news away and replaces it with something so incredibly powerful and uplifting.
When you watch your players’ matches, do you feel stressed?
So this is the difficult thing that comes with sport. It’s wonderful feeling when you win but any fan can tell you, you are filled with nerves, dread and excitement during the match. You’re on the seat of your pants for every point, feeling it with them. Upbeat when they’re doing well and not so much when things are going the other way. Saying this, success is not guaranteed which is why when it happens, you really savor and enjoy it. More importantly,, when it doesn’t happen, you’re a good sport about it, use it as a learning experience and move on.
I always try to watch the players’ matches, if not live, then recorded. Naturally, I’m excited and nervous. After the game, I call or write to Dasha. There’s also Masha Dolzhenko who plays in youth tournaments, but there is no way with those to watch them. But anyway, I follow the results closely. In general, these are positive emotions. This is the main thing for me.
And when you’re talking about emotions, the players themselves require emotional support because they deal with a lot. More than anyone, they get the significance and importance of what they’re doing. They want to do well not just for themselves and their family but the whole country and this is a lot of pressure to deal with.
It’s hard enough to play Serena Williams, Noami Osaka or Simona Halep without all of these thoughts running through your head.
There can be a lot of opinions when it comes to sport. How do you deal with this?
In a mature way. There are no disputes. Sport is a game and perspective of this can never be lost. At the end of the day, everyone is doing their best and if a match goes deep to a third set and players are tired, it doesn’t matter what you discussed or planned before. It’s about heart and will. You just have to have faith in them.
It requires a serious investment to become a top tennis player
Very much so and it’s not just a 17 year old can pick up the game and start playing. You had to have been in the system for at least five years playing, preparing the mind and body for all aspects of being a professional athlete. It is an incredible sacrifice not just by a person but by their family. How are you to know what a 11-12 year old will feel like when they’re 17. They may get sick of tennis and resent you for taking away their teenage years while everyone else their age was at parties and school.
To be good you require the physical game, the mental strength and the inner desire to do whatever it takes. Without these three, it’s doubtful that you will make it because there are so many ups and downs along the way and any one of the many downs could be the one that is the end of the road for you. A bad loss, a freak injury or a fight with a friend could just be three of the things that cause it.
So what does the future look like for Ukrainian tennis?
There is a very promising guy, he is now 17. This year I saw him play at the Australian Open. His name is Vyacheslav Belinsky and his coach is Dolgopolov Sr. I would like to support the guy and make him a top player. It should be noted that the specifics of training a player for men is different. In the ATP tour, the competition is much higher; it is more difficult for the guys to break through than the girls. Accordingly, the costs are different. For girls, starting from 14-15 years old, you need to spend $ 50,000 a year, in total on everything. If this is a player aged 17-18, then the amount increases to 70-80 thousand dollars. For boys, add another 30-40 percent to this amount.
Among the girls, we have up to 10 players who are either already in the top 100 or are on the way.
Do you have a feeling that over the past five years the level of interest for tennis in Ukraine has grown?
It is hard to say. We have a lot of interesting players, the fans have athletes for whom they are cheering. This is psychology, all over the world people support their own ones. If there are none, then the sport is not of particular interest. For example, during the Winter Olympics we all watch biathlon. From time to time we have medals, our athletes fight for them and claim high places. But for example, I don’t watch cross-country skiing because we have no one strong in this sport. Tennis functions according to the same principle. Many bright stars appeared, and the number of fans in Ukraine, in my opinion, has increased. If more star guys appear, the interest will increase even more.