by Lindsay Gibbs
I first took note of Denis Istomin a year an a half ago at the 2010 Legg Mason Tennis Classic. I was perusing the small outer courts with a friend when we came across the Uzbekistani engrossed in a practice session. With no other spectators in sight, we stood there for an awkward amount of time watching in a trance-like state as the tall blonde (that we only semi-recognized) effortlessly and methodically pounded forehand after forehand. He was good, and we were certain that he was a player to watch out for. Turns out we were right. Though he slumped throughout 2011 after reaching a career-high ranking of 39 in 2010, the twenty-five year old is off to an exceptional start in 2012, and it's time for all tennis fans to take note. I was able to interview him at the Winston Salem Open last summer, and left the interview rather enamored (in a non-creepy way, of course). But, in case you're just now paying attention to Denis Istomin, here's a cheat sheet:
1. He's a mama's boy. As in, his mother Klaudiya is his coach and he wouldn't have it any other way. (Aaaaw).
2. He barely played in Juniors. In 2001 he was in a terrible car crash and badly injured his leg. He spent three months in the hospital, required 80 stitches, and didn't touch a racquet for two years. In fall of 2003 he started playing tennis again, but skipped over Juniors and went right to the Futures circuit.
3. He has a refrigerator - from the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation. In 2010, fresh from his first finals appearance in New Haven, Istomin met Rafael Nadal in the 2nd Round of the U.S. Open in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He lost the match, but turned a few heads, especially with one flashy, sliding, skidmark-producing shot. When he got back to Uzbekistan that fall, his Federation awarded him with a refrigerator with an inscription that translates to "Best Shot" on it. USTA take note- that's how you reward your players!
4. He's a Russian. Istomin was actually born in Russia, but moved to Uzbekhistan when he was only 3 months old. He still considers Russia (another) home and finds the Russians on tour to be some of his best friends.
5. He's a Real Madrid fan. Do with that what you may.
6. He has a great sense of humor. He's shy, unassuming, and English isn't his first language, but don't let that fool you - Istomin is funny. We laughed our way through our interview in Winston Salem last summer, and he showcased his wit again after he lost the San Jose final to Milos Raonic last month. After Milos defended his San Jose crown, the Canadian told the crowd that he might have to buy a house in San Jose. Istomin responded that he might have to buy a house there too - just a smaller one than Milos.
7. He's a shot-maker. The Refrigerator-producing shot in #3 is not a fluke. Check out my personal favorite Denis Istomin shot below, from a 2011 Monte Carlo match against Richard Gasquet. (If you need an explanation as to how he lost this match and the one against Nadal, please see item #4.)
8. He won 4 Challengers in 6 weeks last year. I don't care who you are - that's impressive. Plus, he got a great new jacket!
9. He's a braniac. According to the ATP site, he graduated last June from the University of Physical Culture and Sport in Uzbekistan with a degree in physical culture. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but it sounds impressive.
10. He's on his way to the Top 20. Okay, this isn't so much a fact as it is my opinion, but it seems inevitable at this point. Denis has made three quarterfinals, two semis, and a final this year. Including quallies, he's already won 14 matches in 2012, including upset wins over Richard Gasquet, Pablo Andujar, Andy Roddick, and Julien Benneteau. He has barely any points to defend until August, and is back to #51 in the world. So watch out world - Denis Istomin is here to stay. Enjoy it!
Lindsay Gibbs is a contributing writer for OnTheGoTennis. She is the author of the book, Titanic: The Tennis Story which is available for purchase on April 1st at Amazon.com. To follow her on Twitter, click here.