Coaches' Corner: Sobkin's Systematic Approach & Life With Youzhny
Sobkin has been a coach to professional players since 1982, but he is best known for his 25-year partnership with Youzhny, who is set to retire at this week’s St. Petersburg Open
Boris Sobkin does not mince his words. The professor, a doctor of science, has always taken a systematic approach to his coaching, centred on discipline and hard work in productive practice sessions. It’s that intensity that first attracted the no-nonsense Muscovite to Mikhail Youzhny, who, as a 10-year-old, would play tennis each day with his brother, Andrei Youzhny, for six hours per day, with few breaks and no distractions.
“His technique was a disaster,” recalled Sobkin to ATPWorldTour.com, upon first setting his eyes on Youzhny at the Sparta Club, where he was the head coach. “But he was a hard worker.”
Three coaches had already come and gone by May 1993, writing off Youzhny as crazy, a player who could never make it. But Sobkin was intrigued by the 10-year-old.
“Could you imagine a 10-year-old kid playing, not shouting or running around, but just playing points?" said Sobkin. "I was really surprised. Because normally kids play for 1-2 hours, then they get distracted and play other games. He was absolutely different.”
So he reconstructed Youzhny's game stroke-by-stroke.
“He struck his forehand with a backhand grip and did not quite have the right coordination to serve,” said Sobkin, who began working with Youzhny in 1993. “It was terrible. I told him, he couldn’t play professionally if he did that. I had to teach him the forehand grip. I started to learn about his character, what he liked and didn’t like. It took some time, then we began to work on his technique and serve. He had no clue. I started to think about building a game for his character.”
But Youzhny, always a strong character, was a natural winner. “When he is playing, he could not imagine he could lose – even if he is 0-6, 5-5, 0/40,” admitted Sobkin. “He not only wanted to succeed, but he pulled out all of the stops to get better. He would practice 24 hours a day if needed, but I have always attempted to balance his own motivation.”
Youzhny confirmed to ATPWorldTour.com, “When I was a kid, I never wanted to lose the last point. I kept fighting – and have done so throughout my career – as anything could happen.”
It was the kind of drive that led him to arguably his career-defining moment, the fifth-rubber comeback from two-sets-to-love down to beat France’s Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 Davis Cup final in Paris. Youzhny’s father, also Mikhail, would sadly miss the triumph as he passed away in September 2002, just two months prior to Russia’s first trophy in the competition.
Reflecting on his remarkable fifth-rubber comeback in November 2002, Youzhny learned to comprehend the enormity of his accomplishment for Russia’s historic moment. “I was 20 years old,” Youzhny told ATPWorldTour.com. “I understand now how big it was, but it was tough to explain the emotions at that age. It was a tough year as my father passed away two months before. I did not feel 100 per cent happy.
“I am asked about that match every day of my life. People remember the match, my emotions and what it meant for Russian people. Russia had a good tennis tradition, but had never won. People watched tennis for the first time, perhaps that’s why it’s remembered.
“Yet I lost to Roger Federer 17 times and I never beat him. There was a lot of good and great players – [Pete] Sampras, [Andre] Agassi, [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic – I played throughout my career. I know I played at a great time for the sport. I feel very lucky.”
When Youzhny was a teenager, Sobkin had told his father, a former Soviet army colonel, that he was preparing the youngster for the future, over any success as a junior.
Sobkin told ATPWorldTour.com, “I have followed all my life that I must prepare for the best, but fear for the worst. At the beginning I just saw the kid, a hard worker, a fanatic of tennis – like me. For me it was really good to do something together. I tried to prepare him for a professional career, not worry about junior results. I told his father I didn’t think he would have great results as a junior, but the work we’re doing is for years to come. He didn’t play too badly, he was in the Russian national teams, but his best result came when he was 16 1/2, when he reached the  Australian junior final [l. to Kristian Pless].”
Sobkin paid attention to the details, taking one small step forward to improve. There was no time to be patient. He imagined for himself, Youzhny aged 14 or 15, calculating how he may play and beat some of the leading players of the 1990s – Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and others. It’s a philosophy Sobkin adhered to the whole of Youzhny’s 20-season professional career.
“I always prepared for every practice, writing things down on paper,” said Sobkin. “I had a system of using computers, so the practice and tournament schedule were organised – three months, a year, etc. Every practice we did something I thought was important. We didn’t practice just to hit balls. We always did something. This week, for example in his final tournament in St. Petersburg, we undertook how to finish points. I always had a main goal, then 1-2-3 smaller goals."
The 36-year-old Youzhny, who calls time on his career this week, won 10 ATP World Tour titles and was a member of the Top 10 in the ATP Rankings (peaking at No. 8 on 28 January 2008). He remained loyal to Sobkin throughout his career and their relationship changed from coach, father figure, partner and to its final stage of long-lasting friends.
Youzhny told ATPWorldTour.com, “Boris has been the person with me almost all my life, from 11 years old – the good, bad or disaster. He has been a terrific supporter, who always told me the way it was. He helped me the whole of my career – on and off the court.”
“Our relationship could not be the same all the time,” said Sobkin. “When I took him on aged 10, to being now the father of two children, I told him what to do, and he did as the teacher told, but he became a solider and me a general.
“After some years, I told him not to be a soldier, ‘You win or lose. You’re a general now’. We became like partners, he told me more and more – what he liked and didn’t like. We discussed everything as partners. I did my part of the job, he did his part of the job. If he prepared poorly, he would play badly. In the past few years, we became friends as well as partners. We will go together in the future."
Today, Youzhny and Sobkin, who also coaches Evgeny Donskoy, will move forward to the next phase of their lives. “We won’t finish our work or relationship,” Youzhny told ATPWorldTour.com. “We are one family. We will still go forward together with some projects. I hope the next chapter will be really interesting as well.
“I have begun working with a tennis school in Siberia, which had been opened in 2010. At the end of each season, I’ve attended 5-6 days to hit with the kids. There’s now a few players who are looking to turn professional. It’s interesting. I also work with a tennis academy in Australia.”
Having overcome injuries (back, elbow, thigh) during his 1,262-match singles and doubles career, Youzhny never used a protected ranking. It is the attention to training and looking after his body, that both Youzhny and Sobkin will next begin to focus on. “We have a project launching next month about junior injuries in sport, explaining to parents and coaches about how to be ready for professional sport, a healthy life,” said Youzhny.
The tour will miss the steely, intelligent Russian.