Player Features

How Kotov is overcoming tragedy to reach his greatest heights

Rapidly rising Kotov reflects on his coach's passing
January 16, 2024
Pavel Kotov celebrates his first major main draw win in Melbourne.
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Pavel Kotov celebrates his first major main draw win in Melbourne. By Andrew Eichenholz

In one of the most special moments of Pavel Kotov’s life, he chose to deflect attention from himself.

After losing in last October’s Stockholm final — his first championship match on the ATP Tour — Kotov congratulated champion Gael Monfils and thanked both his coach, Mikhail Bril, and his mother, Liliya Kotova, who was watching on TV. But then, after thanking the sponsors and tournament staff, he made an emotional statement.

“Last thing but the most important for me, I would like to dedicate this final to my coach Ivan Polyakov, who passed away this year,” Kotov said. “Thank you.”

Kotov spent a little more than a year under the tutelage of Polyakov, who passed away aged 29 on 31 March 2023 due to cancer.

“It was sudden because we were together at Roland Garros in 2022,” Kotov told after earning his first-round win Sunday at the Australian Open. “[When we came back] we just practised together and he spent a lot of time on the court. He was super, super tired. He thought that it was just every single hour of practice and a lot of different things. But then he went to the doctor and the doctor said it.”

It was a devastating loss for Kotov. In October 2022, he cracked the Top 100 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time and five months later, he struggled with a deep personal loss.

“It was really tough for me to recover, to come back after this. So for now, of course, I remember everything,” Kotov said. “But I'm still here. And I would like to go higher, and I will do my best.”

The 25-year-old forged forward and enjoyed his best season yet. He kept his coach and friend close to his heart and mind as he reached the first five tour-level quarter-finals of his career.

“Of course, I already said when I played the final in Stockholm that I dedicated this final in his memory,” Kotov said. “I understand for now that he's somewhere close to me, and he wanted me to play for sure, and to go as high as I can.”

How high will that be? Ask Kotov and he will chuckle.

Now the World No. 64 — one spot off his career high — Kotov was not like many kids who were ushered on a path to stardom.

“Hopefully I will have enough money not to work the rest of my life. That's my dream,” he said with a laugh.

Kotov began playing at a small club near his family’s apartment. Playing tennis was a matter of convenience. His father is an architect and mother a doctor. They were able to bring Pavel to an activity in the evening.

“It was tennis. That was the choice,” Kotov said. “Because at the same time it was [going to the] swimming pool there. Then a couple like boxing or something… and tennis. But my mother chose tennis and that's how I'm here.”

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Kotov does not know when he realised he had a talent for the sport. “Even not now!” he said, cracking another laugh. “It's a good question.”

As he entered his teens, Kotov was playing national tournaments and then Tennis Europe and ITF events, but was not among the very best in the world. He said he was “not so good”. But it made sense for him to pursue the sport professionally.

“I’ve played tennis [my] whole life because I started to play tennis when I was four,” Kotov said. “Of course, if you spend so much time in tennis, you want to be a professional, to get something back.”

Over the past two years, his game has troubled plenty of standouts on the circuit. On Sunday, he claimed his maiden main draw win at a major against Arthur Rinderknech, who shared his praise.

“You don’t think he’s moving great, but he has such a great eye that he’s covering a lot of balls and of course he’s powerful and his forehand is powerful,” Rinderknech said. “So even though he was against the wind sometimes he was still hitting the ball flat and hard and it wasn’t that easy to control. He’s confident. He’s won a lot of matches lately.”

“I always try to keep as less shots as I can,” Kotov said. “I mean, keep as strong as I can and as less shots as I can. That's the key!”

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Always by Kotov’s side is his mother, Liliya. She does not have a background in tennis — or sports for that matter — but she is almost like a mental coach for her son.

“She helps me a lot with all the stuff out of the court,” Kotov said. “ It's a lot of different things, let's start from stringing racquets to the laundry to, I don't know, maybe lunch, dinner, breakfast.”

Fans might be interested to know that Kotov is a big fan of Harry Potter. His eyes lit up when discussing the popular series.

“I have a lot of different stuff in my room in my apartment that I bought in different countries, for example, in New York, because in New York there is the biggest store in the whole world with Harry Potter,” Kotov said. “[I have a] Triwizard Cup. Sculptures of different things. Triwizard Cup or something else. For example, figures of Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore or Severus Snape.”

Kotov’s Pepperstone ATP Ranking has soared and he has eclipsed the $1 million career prize money mark. What does the future hold for the rapidly rising righty?

“To be honest, I just continue and I don't think about it. I just try to come on court every single day to become a little bit better,” Kotov said. “And that's it.”

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