It was nearly 10 years ago that the invisible streams of radiation gushed from the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl and drifted into the minds and bodies of millions of Soviets.
On that day, April 26, 1986, some 50 miles to the south in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, an 11-year-old was practicing the skill that would, someday, make him rich and famous.
"I was playing in a tennis tournament," Andrei Medvedev said. "I remember it was a beautiful day, late in the spring. We didn't even know what happened. It was lucky the wind was blowing the other way, or it would have been much worse."
Medvedev's "much worse" is a frighteningly relative thing, as in hundreds of thousands of deaths in Kiev, rather than thousands.
"You can't measure it," Medvedev said. "They die all the time. People have heart attacks, cancer. I had a good friend, a man of say 45, who taught me a great deal about life. We played basketball, he went and had a couple of beers, then went home and died."
As he talked here Friday afternoon, Medvedev sat on a restaurant balcony, eating cheesecake delicately prepared in a design of raspberry sauce, looking out onto a plush golf course that surrounds the tennis facility where he will compete this week in the Newsweek Champions Cup. Still five months shy of his 22nd birthday, he is the 14th-ranked player in the world, and one of perhaps a dozen whose all-surface game and athletic skills could make him No. 1 someday.
For Medvedev, already over $4 million in winnings in just over five years on the pro tour, life is good. And he would be the first to admit it.
"Because of the people who come and watch us, and the press who write about us, and the TV and the sponsors, it is so good," he said. "I feel so very lucky."
But the harsh reality is also that, for Medvedev, life conceivably may not be that long.
"They say that, in Kiev, there was still danger from the radiation five years after it happened," he said. "I was there three of those years."
He said the immediate aftermath of the explosion was bizarre.
"At first, we just heard about an accident," he said. "Then, an explosion. The TV people were telling us that the fire was going down, so it was like everything was going to be all right. But pretty soon, there weren't any buses in town, and that was unusual, and then you saw all the government people leaving, and then the rich people."
Medvedev said the effects of the radiation did strange things to the environment after a few months.
"You would catch a fish, and it would be huge, much bigger than ever before," he said. "And there were all these large mushrooms, and the trees were greener and the apples were bigger."
Medvedev said that he has realized now, traveling as he has, that the rest of the world, particularly the United States, had a much better concept of what went on that day than the people who lived within radiation range of Chernobyl.
"For years after, the buses would take workers from Kiev to Chernobyl, then return with them," he said. "One day, somebody found that the metal on the buses was carrying the radiation back and forth and exposing us some more."
He said the first time he went to the doctor, he was told he had had an "accidental overdose" of radiation. He smiled at the foolishness of that, as if anybody sought a purposeful overdose.
Despite that overdose, today he is strong, healthy and upbeat about life, saying repeatedly that he has physical exams frequently--as much for his needs as an athlete as for monitoring radiation in his system. But he also is realistic, almost fatalistic, about the cards dealt him that day nearly 10 years ago.
"I got my dose, that's for sure," he said. "And I've heard all the things about how this won't affect people until they are in their 70s, which isn't true. You just have no way of knowing. What happens is that it affects your immune system, I guess kind of like AIDS.
"I believe everyone has a destiny. Everyone has to die. You will die the way you are supposed to. If it is from radiation, then that is the way you were supposed to go."
Medvedev, whose sister, Natalia Medvedeva, is ranked No. 136 on the Women's Tennis Assn. tour, makes his residence in Monte Carlo. He said he moved his parents from Kiev for a time a few years ago, but that they now live in Kiev again, and that he still returns there as often as he can.
"I am loyal to my city," he said. "It will always be my home. And the danger is gone now."
In so gently and perceptively telling his story of Chernobyl and Kiev, Medvedev adds new dimensions to his image. Right now, at least in the American press, he is best known as a player of great promise whose quick wit and intelligence was best demonstrated during an early news conference at his first U.S. Open in 1993. He enthralled the media for a good 15 minutes with tales of his impressions of the big rotten apple, its noise, 3 a.m. garbage trucks and pushy patrons.
As a promising player who is, perhaps, one Grand Slam title away from a run at No. 1, he has been as far as the quarterfinals of both the U.S. Open and the Australian. His recent hiring of Australian Bob Brett, who previously coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, is meant to push those finishes to semifinals and finals.
Medvedev, who at 6 feet 4 and 180 pounds has been known to fight a bit of a weight problem, has found in Brett, a small and tenacious man in his early 40s who runs as much as 10-15 miles on some days and even does an occasional marathon, a fitting motivational partner.
"He's a great player. I love to hit with him," Medvedev said. "Plus he never slows down. The other day, he ran 1 hour 27 minutes, then hit with me for two hours.
"And at the end, I was the one who was tired."
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Newsweek Champions Cup
* Schedule--First-round play begins Monday, with quarterfinals Friday, semifinals Saturday and the final Sunday.
* TV--15 hours of live coverage on ESPN: Monday through Thursday, noon to 2 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to noon; Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (best-of-five-set final). Additional coverage, some live and some tape-delayed, on ESPN 2.
* Prize money--As one of the ATP Tour's Super Nine tournaments--and one of only three in the United States, including Lipton and Cincinnati--the Newsweek Champions Cup has a total purse of $2.2 million, of which $320,000 goes to the winner.
* Field--Of the 15 top-ranked players in the world, 12 are in the field. No. 1 Pete Sampras, the two-time defending champion, is seeded first, and could play No. 4 Boris Becker in one semifinal if the form chart holds. No. 2 Thomas Muster is seeded to play No. 3 Andre Agassi in the semifinals, but the bottom portion of the draw also includes No. 5 Michael Chang and No. 7 Jim Courier. The main challenger to Sampras and Becker in the top bracket is No. 6 Goran Ivanisevic.
* Tickets--(for the 11,500-seat Grand Champions Stadium, including the Women's State Farm Evert Cup tournament being played simultaneously) All day sessions Thursday through Sunday are sold out. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday day sessions are within 1,000 tickets or fewer of being sold out. There is ticket availability for all evening sessions Monday through Friday. Overall attendance is projected to be 200,000. A total sellout would be 218,500.