Bubka battles to be worthy of the name

Like father, like son... A famous dad brings bonuses as well as pitfalls for a young man trying to build his own career
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Having climbed as high as fourth among the world juniors, Bubka has embarked on his senior career and nudged his ranking inside the top 1,000 by reaching the final of a satellite tournament in Wrexham last week.

That young Sergei will need all the work ethic and dedication of his high-flying father to make it on the big boys' tour was shown last Tuesday, when he went out in the second round of the Masters at Sheffield which culminated the four-week series of satellite events in Britain. But the promise is there. All-round promise, too, since he won the Sheffield doubles title in harness with Britain's Andrew Kennaugh.

Because his professional earnings so far amount to no more than a few hundred dollars, Bubka is making his way on the tour with the financial backing of Sergei Snr, who is now president of the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee and a member of the country's parliament, as well as being involved in various business ventures. The father's subsidy also runs to the provision of a full-time coach, the Austrian Thomas Bischof, who travels for 38 weeks of the year with the teenager, and the occasional advice of the Australian Bob Brett.

Young Sergei, tall, slim and with strong, handsome features like his father, finds no embarrassment about the arrangement. "I am lucky that they [his parents] have the money to support my efforts to become a tennis player. I don't think everyone has such a chance, so I have to make sure I use it in the right way.

"So I am privileged in one way, but the Ukrainian Federation doesn't help me at all, while the LTA help their British players. So they are privileged in another way."

So does Dad's fame help as much as his money? "I grew up with it, so the attention I get is quite normal," Bubka smiled. "I was really small when I first realised what a great and famous athlete he was."

Bischof stressed: "Sergei's opponents don't care about the name, they just want to beat him. On the other hand, when camera teams show up to do special stories about him, that can lift your game. But he knows he is not that good yet on his own account." However, the name has already helped him land clothing, racket and stringing contracts, and will surely be an aid when it comes to the awarding of wild cards for main Tour events next year.

Despite a knee injury, Bubka reached the quarter-finals of this year's French Open junior event, but following an early exit at Junior Wimbledon he opted to move up to senior level. "At first I had trouble getting my playing level back after the injury," he said. "But now I am at a good level. I think I have a lot of potential, and the next year will probably be the most important for me. The biggest need is to improve my game."

Though Bischof praises the power of his serve, Bubka includes that as one of the areas where he feels he must do better. "I just have to put all the small parts together to be a complete player. I can't put a timescale on when that might happen, but if I combine hard work with my potential I can probably reach my goals."

However, he has already shown enough form to be chosen twice for Davis Cup duty this year in Ukraine's ties against Norway and Bulgaria.

The family - the two Sergeis, an older brother, Vitaly, and mother Lilia - are based in Monte Carlo, where they have lived since young Sergei was seven. The move was made to provide better training facilities for the later stages of Bubka Snr's pole-vaulting career.

The pull of the old homeland affects the youngster. "I go back there quite often and I still have a lot of relatives there," he said. "I really feel like I'm Ukrainian and that's my home." However, he values the advantages which Monaco brings, such as the Monaco resident's card which renders unnecessary the need for a Ukrainian to be granted a visa to get into most tournaments in Europe.

His mother was a well-known gymnast, so Sergei has inherited sporting genes from both parents. "My father is the most professional sportsman I know, and is a great example for me. He showed what I have to do to succeed." Bubka Jnr said he was never steered towards vaulting by his father. "I never thought about it, but he didn't mind, and he understood that I have loved tennis since I was small." This was underlined when, aged nine, he beat his father.

"My father doesn't come to watch me very often because of his business commitments," said Bubka. "He is involved with my career, but doesn't try to interfere. He is not angry if I don't do well but tells me what I have to focus on more, and insists that I must always learn from my mistakes."

He is proud, he said, to have been named after his father, but longs for the time when people don't refer to him as the son of the pole vaulter. "One day I hope my results in tennis will make people say, 'Oh, Sergei Bubka the tennis player'." And one day, too, perhaps, like father, he will become a Hero of the Ukraine.


ON THE UP: Born 4 December 1963 in Luhansk, Ukraine (formerly USSR). Coached by Vitaly Petrov from 1978. First competed in 1983 in Helsinki, winning with 5.70m.

FLYING HIGH: First to clear 6m in Paris in 1985. Gold at 1988 Seoul Olympics with 5.90m. World record 6.14m in 1994 in Sestriere, Italy. Set 17 outdoor and 18 indoor world records (6.15m, 1993).

SOFT LANDING: MP since 2002, on committees for youth, sport and tourism.