Penza, Russia: 5 Days I’ll Never Get Back

I hadn’t heard too many bad things about Penza from guys who played the event last year aside from the fact that it was difficult to get to so I decided to go ahead and enter the tournament. Little did I know, the tournament venue and official hotel had been changed from last year which meant we would be playing in some remote forest in Russia with not too much around. Just one main road (no public transport), an astro-turf football pitch and a lots of tall evergreen trees. Depending on traffic, it could take anywhere between 30 and 60 mins to get to Penza City so we were a fair distance out from any real action.

It was a $50,000 Challenger tournament which meant a lot of ATP points were up for grabs, good money and you would expect, good hospitality. Nyet! (Russian for ”No”)

Even before I landed in Russia, things were messy.  If you haven’t ever applied for a Russian Visa, all I can say is ”Good luck”. It takes an enormous amount of time to go through the application process and realistically you want to give yourself 2-3 weeks of time ahead of departure to make sure you get it without any confusion. It involves a lot of paper work and a lot of patience.

Just after landing in Penza

I was told by players at a previous tournament not to board the plane from Moscow to Penza as apparently the planes were very old,  unsafe, uncomfortable Soviet planes but I decided to go with my gut and take the plane anyway. (If I took the train, it would take 12 hours). After hopping onto a red-eye flight to Moscow and sitting on the floor (yes, not a chair) for 4 hours in Moscow airport, I nervously boarded the plane to Penza. The plane was tiny but I thought it was o.k. and the air hostess was nice enough to hand out free sweets. Aer Lingus don’t even do that! I made it to Penza safe and sound. First thoughts when stepped out of the plane, ”Hot, middle of nowhere, get me to a hotel room.”

Luckily, the tournament had arranged 3 female translators for the week and I was greeted by a lovely girl who spoke good english. She ended up being a life-saver for me for the week as virtually no one else spoke english! Not a word, not even ”hello”. Simple things like ordering a meal or getting a taxi would be a slow, arduous process so this girl basically became my shadow for the week.

Basic Russian words for the week

After a one hour drive in the official transport (a very old dusty, hot van) into the country and down these windy, pot-hole strewn roads, we finally arrived at the official tournament hotel. You wouldn’t even call it a hotel though, it was more like an old communist building with no interior decoration, just some half-painted walls and dusty carpets. The smell wasn’t great either when I walked in and you could just tell no one really cared about this place. All the lights had been turned off in the entire hotel and when I walked into the reception area, there was just one dim table light in the corner. I thought to myself, ”How could this be the official hotel for a $50,000 Challenger?” The translator communicated with the receptionist and I told them I would stay one night and depending on the match schedule, would probably change hotels. It was late on Saturday afternoon by this stage and the last thing I wanted to do after 18 hours of travelling was go through the whole process of looking for another hotel (closest one was over 20Km away).

The whole place was surrounded by tall trees and as I heaved my suitcase across a weedy garden to my room, I saw 4 military officials with Kalashnikov rifles firing rounds towards a target pinned on one of the trees. “What the ???” This place was weird...

My hotel room was tiny with no air-conditioning, spiders and ants crawled around the room, towels were dirty and as the week went on, I realized there were no room cleaners! I attempted to ask the receptionist for new towels and perhaps even new sheets but it was like getting blood from a stone. I knew the week ahead wasn’t going to be easy.

I was the only tennis player staying at the official hotel for the week as most of the Russian players had rented apartments in the city and the non-Russians paid extra for accommodation also in the city.  Even though there were plenty of rooms available at the official hotel, all the other players had been told it was booked up and they couldn’t stay.  I have no idea why they were told this but my guess is the hotel didn’t have enough food to cater for more than 10 players, seriously. Because the hotel wasn’t too far from the courts (5 min drive), I thought I could just suck it up and deal with it. Big mistake. As the week went on, I wish I had gone somewhere else! I’ve had my fair share of bad hotels in the past (one I stayed at in Damascus, Syria comes to mind) but this hotel definitely hits number one on the list.

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Food was awful in the hotel and if you look at some of the pictures, you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. There were dim lights used in the restaurant and I was served everyday by a waiter with zero english. I ended up having someone translate some basic words for me into Russian so I could communicate with him. That helped!

I couldn’t eat anywhere outside the hotel in the evenings as the city was too far away so I just had to accept things as they were and deal with it. I remember holding my breath each time a meal came out because it was the strangest food I’d ever come across. For example, one breakfast I was served chocolate cake, cold spaghetti and the most revolting cold sausages you could imagine. I’d honestly felt like eating cardboard instead. There was another morning when I arrived at breakfast only to find my dinner from the previous night still on the table! No hygiene here and carpets were filthy.

Food at the courts was slightly better (not very hard to do) with the lunches consisting of microwaveable meals and if you’re lucky, you might get some rock hard bread to chew on before you hit the practice courts. Great nutrition! Thankfully, I came prepared with some nutritional bars and I ate each one of them as if it was the last.

Anyway, I ended up losing 2nd round in the tournament after a disappointing performance and the very first thing I did when I lost my match was sit down, whip out the iPad and book the quickest flight back to Dublin. I had no intention of spending even one more night in Penza and thankfully I found a flight out to Moscow that same evening. I flew back to Dublin the next day and began preparations for the Irish Open for the following week. It certainly wasn’t my most pleasant week on the tour but in saying that, I still managed to pick up 7 ATP points and take another step forward.

People ask me all the time what life on the tour is like and what each week consists of and to be honest, it tends to go from one extreme to the other. This week is a great example. Right now I am in Bolzano, Italy  playing a $15,000+H Futures tournament and things couldn’t be better. Weather is great, hotel is fantastic, food is delicious, organization is efficient and the area is beautiful (surrounded by breathtaking scenery).

Why can’t every week be like this?! 🙂

Playing in Bolzano, Italy this week


About James Mc Gee

Professional Tennis Player on ATP World Tour and Irish Davis Cup Player
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5 Responses to Penza, Russia: 5 Days I’ll Never Get Back

  1. Sara says:

    What a trip! I’ve never had the inclination to go to Russia and lets just say that your account of your latest trip there does not inspire me to book flights any time soon. I’m pretty sure one of the dinner pics you posted has pigs ears on the plate – I recognize them because my shih tsu loves to snack on them! Glad Italy has worked out better, with maybe some proscuitto this time istead of the ears.
    Good luck! 🙂

  2. Brendan says:

    Thanks for enlightening me about the life of a real tennis pro. I would love to read a post about the practicalities and strategy of deciding which tournaments to enter, or not to enter; and do you do all the planning and arranging yourself, or how much is done by your coach, manager (if you have one) or Tennis Ireland? Best wishes;

  3. Alan Keegan says:

    This should serve as an eye-opener for so many people who think tennis is all about the glitz and glamour of the Slams and Masters tournaments. The tour seems like a real difficult slog with good and bad experiences such as these and anyone who puts in this much work and dedication on the Futures and Challenger events deserves all the success they get. Keep up the great work James!

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