The Legacy Of Max 'The Beast' Mirnyi
The day before his 10th birthday, Max Mirnyi sat in front of his family’s black and white television in Minsk, Belarus. It was around 10 pm — well past the youngster’s bedtime — but Mirnyi’s parents let him stay awake to watch highlights of that day’s 1987 Wimbledon final, in which Pat Cash upset Ivan Lendl to lift the trophy.
It was Mirnyi’s first exposure to tennis on television. You can say that evening’s sports news show changed his life forever.
“I saw this checkerboard bandana and I saw him move like a cat at the net and I was fascinated,” Mirnyi told ATPTour.com. “I remember one of the shots that he hit was behind the back. Lendl hit a smash and he made a reflex behind the back and I said, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ It was on a black and white TV, but nevertheless I had the imagination of the grass being green.”
Mirnyi was hooked, and suddenly that young boy — who probably should have been asleep — had a dream. And he certainly made it come true.
Just more than a decade later, Mirnyi began to find his footing as a professional. Still just No. 228 in the ATP Rankings in April 1999, the Belarusian played Jim Courier at two ATP World Tour events in Florida (Orlando and Delray Beach) within the space of a month. Mirnyi molded his game as a teenager at the IMG Academy in Florida, under the guidance of Nick Bollettieri. It was at that same facility that Courier grew up, eventually becoming a World No. 1.
“I remember that early in the match I was getting a sense of confidence, even though I was maybe trailing or being even on the scoreline. I was feeling that, ‘Wow, if it’s 4-4 in the first set or if I’m still competing with Jim Courier, it means that I’m doing something that’s causing him discomfort’,” Mirnyi remembered. “Beating him there, those two weeks, I felt like that’s some sort of a sign for me to really believe that I belong and it definitely gave me the push from within to continue and try to make it a career.”
And that Mirnyi did. He would earn his first Top 10 win the next year against Lleyton Hewitt at the Sydney Olympics, and he’d eventually tally 16 victories against Top 10 opponents in singles.
Mirnyi’s two greatest singles accomplishments were winning his lone singles title at Rotterdam in 2003 and reaching the 2001 Stuttgart final, beating four legends — Gustavo Kuerten, Goran Ivanisevic, Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov — en route to the championship match before losing to fellow Bollettieri pupil Tommy Haas.
“This is what I was training for and believing in since I was a kid. When I was growing up and starting to watch some tennis matches on TV, the Beckers and Edbergs, Pat Cash winning Wimbledon, I modeled my game after them and I believed that that was something I would like to do,” said Mirnyi, who climbed as high as No. 18 in singles. “I really enjoyed the top level of tennis and when I had those wins early in my career. I started believing.”
What people might not realise is that Mirnyi defeated Roger Federer twice in their first four FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings on the singles court (Federer won the series 7-2). And not only that, but they won three doubles titles together, including an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event at Miami in 2003.
“It’s incredible, because I felt like Roger was one of my rivals, but I was a little bit older than him. When he was coming up, I felt like I had to beat him,” said Mirnyi, whose biggest victory against Federer came in the Round of 16 of the 2002 US Open. “I beat him in straight sets [in New York] and I didn’t think much of [the victory]. I walked off the court winning in straight sets and thought, ‘Who’s next?’... it was incredible that less than a year later, the guy was winning Wimbledon.”
And while Mirnyi didn’t win that US Open quarter-final against Andre Agassi, he certainly made an impact on the legendary American. Agassi won all four of their FedEx ATP Head2Head matches, but that one meeting resonated enough for the icon to write about the Belarusian in his book, “Open”.
“They call him ‘The Beast’, and it’s an understatement,” Agassi wrote. “He’s 6’5” and hits a serve that’s among the scariest I’ve ever faced. It has a burning yellow tail, like a comet, as it arcs high above the net and then swoops down upon you. I have no answer for that serve.”
While Agassi didn’t coin the nickname, it followed Mirnyi throughout his career. But perhaps what he became most known for was not how physically imposing he was, but how hard he worked at his craft.
“I definitely don’t consider myself a talented tennis player. I think from an early age, my parents developed this behaviour around me and for me that whatever I put my hands on, I had to be committed, be disciplined, give 100 per cent, be respectful,” Mirnyi said. “I never felt like it came easy to me. I felt that by putting in the work, this is how I would get results.”
Over a career that spanned more than two decades in which Mirnyi played a combined 1,711 singles and doubles matches, he never withdrew or retired from a match — his doubles partners were forced to retire just twice. And credit for that goes to taking care of his body day-in and day-out, during the most exciting highs and the most deflating lows.
It’s taking care of what he could control that led Mirnyi to win a combined 1,024 matches (244-242 in singles, 780-445 in doubles), 53 titles (from 102 finals), and reach No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings. Mirnyi is one of just 19 players to reach World No. 1 in doubles and crack the Top 20 in singles. The Belarusian claimed the Nitto ATP Finals doubles title twice, six men’s doubles Grand Slam trophies, four majors in mixed doubles and the 2012 Olympic mixed doubles gold medal with Victoria Azarenka after carrying the flag for Belarus at the Opening Ceremony.
Even in his final season on the ATP World Tour, at 41, Mirnyi grinded away. He won two titles alongside Philipp Oswald, and they finished the season at No. 18 in the ATP Doubles Team Rankings.
“He walks the talk. I've never met any other person in my tennis career whose actions were as reliable as his word. He is the real deal and far away from fake," Oswald said. "Staying disciplined and being positive in every crucial moment is just natural to him and won him many matches. He was the leader in our partnership and I was trying to listen and learn on every move along our path. I'm really thankful to have had this opportunity to get so close to a player I‘ve always looked up to.”
But as you might expect, Mirnyi respected everyone around him, not just his partners. At 12, his father took him from Belarus to Brooklyn, New York, before moving to Florida almost a year later just to get a chance to have International Tennis Hall of Famer Bollettieri watch him play. Bollettieri says that after one minute, he knew he would offer that 13-year-old a scholarship. And to this day, Mirnyi, who will turn his attention to his family — he has four children — and his Max Mirnyi Center in Belarus, still helps youngsters at the academy, no matter if he knows them or not.
“He would never put the blame on his partner. He got the maximum out of what he had,” Bollettieri said. “When you work with a human being like this who is so humble, and works with all the juniors at the IMG Academy, he gives them advice, he asks about my family, he’s a family man. If the world had more Max Mirnyis, there would never be war.”
Mirnyi came a long way from sitting in front of his television as a kid in Belarus. The player he was in awe of that day, Cash, has gained just as much respect for Mirnyi since.
“I think more than anyone on the circuit today, Max led by example. I love the fact that he had old-school principles of fair play and respect but went as hard as he could as a competitor. He really got the best out of himself and that showed as a very fine singles player who excelled in doubles,” Cash said. “His work ethic on and off the court was really impressive right to his last days but to me but the most impressive thing was despite having competitive fire he was a really genuine, good guy. With his knowledge I believe he has a lot to offer the world of tennis and I hope we'll see him again in a different role.”
Did You Know?
Mirnyi was ranked in the Top 50 of the year-end ATP Rankings six straight years (2000-05). He also finished 19 consecutive seasons (1999-2017) inside the Top 50 of the ATP Doubles Rankings.
Tributes To 'The Beast
“Max was an incredible talent and an amazing athlete. He was an absolute beast on the court and could hurt his opponents with so many weapons including his huge serve and blanketing coverage of the net. More importantly, Max played the game with class and is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He epitomises professionalism in every way and worked extremely hard to maximise his potential. It was a pleasure competing and sharing the Tour with this legend for so many years. I’m wishing him and his beautiful family the very best and I know he’ll be successful in anything he decides to do in this next phase of life.”
“It was an honour to spend 20 years on tour with ‘The Beast’. There isn’t a more professional, hard-working, or nicer player out there. He was a nightmare to play against but a pleasure to be around. I wish Max and his family success and happiness in their next chapter.”
“Sad to see Max retire. Thought he still had a lot of good tennis left in him. Really enjoyed our time together on court and wish we could have played longer together. One of the best all-around players in singles and doubles in the history of our sport.”
"I’m so happy for Max, for what he has achieved in his great career and I think he really maximized his tennis — both in singles and doubles — purely because of his extraordinary professionalism as an athlete. I’ve never seen anyone so disciplined when it comes to preparation, focus on practice, and focus and positive energy on the court in matches. It was such a privilege to play doubles with him because you always had fun on court, no matter whether you were winning or losing. There was always positive energy."
"He was always dangerous for any player on any surface with the type of gameplay he had in singles. In doubles he was obviously a monster on court with his flexibility, his athleticism, but also the weapons he had in doubles were perfect with his big serve, his reach at the net and being very aggressive... He had an unbelievable career and I think he was a phenomenal ambassador for the sport of tennis and a phenomenal ambassador for Belarus. I was there playing Davis Cup against him and he took care of the whole Swedish team in a phenomenal way and I know how appreciated he is back home because of what he has achieved, but also because of how he has promoted his country throughout his career and I’m so happy to see that he got the chance to carry the flag in the Olympics. He really will be missed by many on the ATP circuit, no doubt. I would be surprised if he has any enemies out there, because he has treated people the same way for all these years."
"During our partnership, we had a lot of great success. It’s obviously going to be a special memory always for me that we managed to win the French Open together, which was the last Grand Slam that I hadn’t won in my career, so to fulfill my dream of winning all four Grand Slams, and to do it with Max, it was amazing. And to come back and win again was even more of a great feeling to be able to do that. Obviously we can look back to a lot of great victories. I think we really had a great partnership. We really helped each other to support our weaknesses and strengths as a doubles team. With his big serve to my weapon of returning, I think that combo was a perfect matchup and always made it hard for our opponents to play us and that we always were positive on the court. We never gave up, no matter what the score was. I think that was tough for anyone to know, that physically it took a lot to beat us. Only great memories from that time with Max."
“’The Beast’ is one of the most professional players that I have ever seen. He achieved absolutely everything on the court. I had some great matches with him, but was also fortunate enough to have had the honour to play with him! His humility, grace, athleticism, talent and most of all, his flexibility make Max one of the most admired players on Tour. He is a great family man and I know that Max will go on to continued success off the court. Wishing you and your family all the best. Congrats, Beast!”
“I‘ve got lots of stories and quotes to tell about one of the greatest in our sport. I'm actually really sad that I won't see him anymore on a daily basis, but also happy for him that he is able to call it a day without any regrets and without a big show. Because that's how he is, a clean-cut guy with both feet on the ground and an authentic personality.
I think what I admire most about the Beast is besides all the success he had, that he is such a polite and respectful personality who treats everyone the same and never from above. He never shows off with his big career, he rather chooses to listen in conversations and would remember every name or story being told. He never leaves a question unanswered and I witnessed his human qualities on so many occasions. The way he interacted with children on those "kids’ days" at tournaments or the way he handled my coaches, friends and family was just top class. He is a very fine person — a real Sir and gentleman…
His professionalism is just outstanding and he's a great ambassador for the doubles tour and our sport in general.
His nickname ‘The Baest’ I guess is based on his athleticism, because besides that I got to know him as very careful human being with great values and this outstanding personality… I can't even thank him enough for his commitment and dedication at this stage of his career towards our partnership and this job. He is a great role model and will always be the greatest mentor I´ve shared the court with and a great inspiration.”
“He was a big, dangly boy. Coordination only fair. But what shows beyond a shadow of doubt is that he overcame those obstacles by his mindset and determination to be the best that he could be and that is what makes Max Mirnyi. He knows what he could do, and what he can’t do. He knew the longer he stayed on the baseline, his chances dropped down tremendously. He knew what he had to do: develop a serve, get confident on the volley and get his behind into the net, and that’s what he did.
He offset some limitations — not having a big forehand — he offset those limitations by coming into the net and that’s what helped him become a tremendous player.”
“I’ve known him since I was 13 years old. I remember the old days at Bollettieri’s. One thing that always stuck out about Max is he was very respectful. One of the hardest workers that I’ve known, always doing his work that he needed to do to be the best player he could possibly be. He’s had a tremendous career. People also forget he had a great career in singles. He managed to go to No. 18 in the world. I remember winning my first Masters 1000 title on my home soil in Stuttgart, Germany, I beat him in the final where he beat Kafelnikov and Pete Sampras. So he was obviously a very dangerous, good player. Old school, serve and volley. But he was a tremendous, tremendous athlete and until the end he played some very good tennis. Even looking at him now, he’s 41 years old, but still in tip-top shape. He has such a respect for the game, and he’s going to leave a mark with whatever he does in tennis, if he’s helping out coaching or running an academy or a camp. What a career he’s had… it’s good to see people like this succeed.”
“Congratulations on an amazing career, Max! Thank you for all the memories, both on and off the court. Thank you for being a role model in our sport for many kids in our country and around the world. Congratulations again and I am so proud of you and grateful for sharing amazing moments together.”