At Bay In The Caucasus

My next tournament was scheduled to take place in the city of Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. I arrived more than a week early, which meant I had time to explore the remote Caucasus Mountains area. Along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea; the three countries were the southernmost republics in the former Soviet Union and are now independent.

My amazing run of good weather followed me to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Looking to practice, I found Leila Meskhi Stadium, which was only two stops away on the efficient metro. Leila Meskhi, Georgian and a Tbilisi native, had been a top tour player in the early Nineties. The facility was obviously conceived as a tournament venue: four red clay courts with an umpire’s chair, grandstand, and lights; Prince advertising covered the high fences.

Wanting to give back to one’s hometown is a noble sentiment. However Meskhi’s impressive gesture seems to have gone unappreciated. The courts were seriously underutilized. I went there several times and the only other players were a few advanced youngsters in training. Watching those kids is always amusing. You get the impression they can barely see over the net. And the racquet seems about as tall as them.

I found a hitting partner in a rangy, 21-year-old lefty pro named Bagran. Hitting with a 6.0 male is an unbelievable experience. Playing points against him is even better. He had otherworldly speed. I would hit a ball into a corner that seemed a sure winner. He’d not only get to it and hit it back, he’d run down my next shot into the other corner, and get that one back too.  He had been a ranked junior, he said, but for some reason I didn’t quite catch he stopped competing. I couldn’t understand it. He seemed every bit as talented as the guys at the U.S. Open qualifying.

Tbilisi is a bustling, good-sized city. There’s one main downtown shopping boulevard, stretches of which resemble upper Madison Avenue, and a quaint Old City where I was staying. Its metro system is a carbon copy of Kiev’s, down to the configuration of their escalators. Apparently the Soviets had a master plan for all of their metros.

After a week in Tbilisi, I rode a marshrutka five hours to Armenia’s capital Yerevan, another city with a surprisingly elegant downtown and lively cafe society. At the border a sullen agent had demanded a nominal visa fee, the first one I’d been charged so far in fifteen countries. Arriving at my hostel, I was greeted by a short, pot-bellied receptionist. As he was examining my passport I asked his name.

“My name is Agassi,” he said.

I decided to play along.

“Your first name or last name?”

“My first name,” he said, “It’s spelled the same as the famous tennis player.”

I nodded. I mentioned that Andre early in his career would often be asked about the derivation of his surname. Mike Agassi, Andre’s father, is usually described in the American media as an Iranian immigrant.

“No, he is Armenian,” said Agassi, looking at me for the first time. “Andre’s real name is Andreiska Aghassian.”

I then asked whether there were any tennis courts nearby. Yes, he said, spreading a map in front of us and drawing lines on it for me.

“I am not very good for tennis but I will play with you, ” he said.

By the next morning, however, he had apparently and providentially forgotten about his gracious offer. The courts, however, turned out to be right where he said they were, and only a 10-minute walk away.

Henrick, pro at Ararat Tennis Club in Yerevan

Henrick

The Ararat Tennis Club was another first-rate but underused clay-court facility, one of Yerevan’s two major tennis clubs. There I met Henrick, a compact, athletic-looking instructor wearing designer tennis duds. If this guy isn’t an elite player, I thought, then I never saw an elite player. And he spoke passable English.

I had several productive sessions with him. For my money he was the ideal teaching pro, correcting my flaws without being asked. Henrick said he had played in Futures Tournaments and was a member of Armenia’s 2009 Davis Cup team, in an away tie against the Ivory Coast.

“Do they have clay courts there?” I asked.

“No, only hard courts.”

After one of our sessions I hung around and watched him train a 15-year-old who’s ranked No. 1 in Armenia in the under 16s. They did a net drill hitting probably two hundred volleys in a row without missing. It was awesome. The only difference I noticed between them was the kid wore his baseball cap on backwards. Later Henrick told me he’s been working with him for eight years.

I would’ve liked to stay longer in Yerevan. I felt better about my game than I had in some time. Batumi, here I come!

 

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