From Russia, with Love Sabres rookie Maxim Afinogenov and his phenom sister, Katia, are a pair to watch

March 20, 2000

In 1996 Todd Diamond was 25 and trying to make a name for
himself in the hockey agent business. Diamond was working in
Russia, which was once virgin territory, but post-Communism, was
teeming with American hockey agents. He had some things going
for him, though. He had gumption. He was willing to travel
rough. He also had family history, since six of his eight
great-grandparents had been born in the former Soviet Union.

One warm day in June of that year Diamond was in the Moscow
apartment of the parents of Maxim Afinogenov, a 16-year-old
hockey player. Maxim's mother, Raisa, was preparing a meal. His
father, Sergei, was puttering around. Maxim's nine-year-old
sister, Katia, sauntered through the living room and challenged
her brother to a game of tennis. The four Afinogenovs and
Diamond headed to a park.

Diamond was stunned. He'd never seen a nine-year-old tennis
phenom in action. Katia would lose a point, get mad and then win
the next three. She was fanatically determined. Diamond could
see that, and he suddenly felt the urge also to get into the
tennis agent business. Later that night, back at the apartment,
Sergei poured two cognacs, raised his hand with Diamond's and
toasted their future, wherever it would take them.

That's how the American odyssey of the Afinogenovs began. Maxim,
now 20, is a rookie winger for the Buffalo Sabres in the first
year of a three-year, $2.3 million contract. NHL observers talk
about his effortless skating, his superb puckhandling, his
potential to be a big scorer. They talk about how lucky the
Sabres were to select him with the 69th pick of the 1997 draft.
Through Sunday, Maxim had 14 goals and 14 assists in his first
53 NHL games.

Katia, who turned 13 in January, is a full-time student at a
Florida tennis academy in Pompano Beach run by Rick Macci, who
taught Venus and Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati when they
were kids. Macci claims that Katia will be better than any of
them. Raisa and Sergei have left the motherland, too. They live
with Katia in a condo on the grounds of the Palm Aire Country
Club in Pompano Beach . As for Maxim, he lives at a hotel in
Buffalo, counting the days until Raisa's next visit. "It's an
existence," he says in Russian. "It's not a life."

Nobody said it would be easy. For the Afinogenovs, Russia
beckons. It's home, the place of their language, food, friends,
family. But they're in the U.S. for a good reason, each of the
Afinogenovs says, in his or her own way. To put it simply,
they're in America so that Maxim and Katia can train in the best
facilities and prove themselves against the best competition in
the world.

It's no accident that Maxim found his way to a team sport and
Katia to an individual one. Maxim talks happily about his hero,
Wayne Gretzky, but ask him what he wants to accomplish in
hockey, and he mentions nothing about personal success. Instead
he says, "Win many Stanley Cups for my team." Katia will talk
about the two Martinas--Navratilova and Hingis--and Monica
Seles, her models, but their achievements don't intimidate her.
"My goal is to be the best," she says. She speaks fluent
English, which she learned mostly from watching TV after moving
to America, and expresses herself incisively. "It's not about
money. I had everything I needed in Russia. It's about winning
and making the people who watch you like the way you play tennis."

Katia came to the U.S. before Maxim. In December 1997 an
intermediary for Diamond's agency, International Sports Advisors
(ISA) of Montclair, N.J., called Macci to see if he would
consider Katia, who was 10, for a spot in his academy. Macci
gets many such calls. When he was told Katia was Russia's
12-and-under girls' tennis champion, he was curious. When he was
told that her brother was one of the top junior hockey players
in Russia, he became more intrigued. When he was told that
Katia's mother was twice the Soviet track and field champion at
800 meters, Macci said, "When can you get her here?"

The next month Katia made her U.S. tennis debut, on a court in
Pompano Beach, where she was throttled by a succession of
American teenage girls. Macci watched her for two hours and was
mesmerized. She was doing things he had never seen such a young
girl do. Though her strokes were unrefined, she was hitting
winners from awkward positions, her feet going one way, her
hands going another. She was getting to nearly every ball. She
was attacking the net. Macci's mind raced.

Within weeks the Rick Macci Tennis Academy, ISA and the
Afinogenovs had signed a 10-year contract. Under the terms of
the deal Macci agreed to teach tennis to Katia until 2007,
manage her career in conjunction with ISA, arrange and pay for
home schooling, and employ Raisa as a fitness instructor. The
Afinogenovs agreed to share with Macci and ISA an undisclosed
percentage of Katia's tennis winnings and endorsement earnings
after she turns pro a year from now, when she's 14.

Early on a recent, bright weekday morning Katia was practicing,
and Sergei, who is built like a bear, was sitting courtside,
overwhelming his white plastic folding chair. He makes regular
trips to Moscow to keep his hand in his business, which
organizes trade exhibits. Mostly, though, he's in the U.S. On
this morning he wore wraparound shades, a tight T-shirt, short
shorts, sandals and white socks. He didn't seem to be at home.
Occasionally, he would say something encouraging to his daughter.

"We came here for Katia," Sergei says in Russian. He doesn't
speak English and is a man of few words in any language. Raisa
speaks halting English. "If Katia wanted to return to Russia or
stop tennis, she would," she says. "But she has a talent. She
must test it."

In the afternoon Sergei and Katia headed back to the apartment.
While Katia, a bright student who's familiar with the works of
Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, prepared for a visit from her
math tutor, Sergei popped a tape into a videocassette player.
The tape showed Maxim scoring a goal against the Philadelphia
Flyers.

Sergei loves hockey and pointed Maxim toward the sport as soon
as he learned to walk. By his early teens Maxim was an
accomplished player, although not the prodigy that Katia appears
to be. While Maxim was playing for Moscow Dynamo, one of
Russia's elite junior teams, his coaches were awed by his
ability to get shots off but confused as to why so few went in.
Only in his final year in junior hockey did the goals start
finding the back of the net, and in the 1998 world junior
championship Maxim had five points in seven games. Now that he's
in the NHL, it's his defense that needs improvement.

When Sergei is in Florida, Raisa tries to visit Maxim in
Buffalo. When she isn't there, Maxim speaks daily to his parents
and sister by cell phone. One day last month he was sitting at a
restaurant in Buffalo when his phone rang. "Excuse me," he said.
He headed to an empty table to talk to Raisa.

At the peak of Raisa's running career, in 1976, she failed to
make the Soviet Olympic team, a fact that she says shames her to
this day. Raisa says she can purge that shame with her visions.
She imagines her daughter playing in the Federation Cup for
Russia and her son playing on the Russian Olympic team. "We say
to our children, 'If you want to write, write. If you want to
play music, play music,'" Raisa says. "It doesn't have to be
sport. But whatever it is, do it on the highest level."

Their story is a work in progress. "I think it's going to
conclude with two inductions into two Halls of Fame," says
Diamond. He's thinking grand things. However, almost every high
school has a wall of fame devoted to kids who were supposed to
be world-beaters but who were just all-county. Dreams change,
stories take unexpected turns. Sergei knows this.

"We'll see," he says with a casual shrug, speaking of his kids'
future. "That's all. We'll see."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT While Maxim plays right wing for Buffalo, Katia, 13, trains in Florida for her pro debut. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES IN TOUCH Living apart in America now, Katia and Maxim maintain their close relationship by talking daily on the phone.

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