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SPORTSDARLINGSALEXOVECHKINANDMARIAKIRILENKO TALKABOUTTHELOVEOFTHEIRLIVES—SPORTSANDEACHOTHER BYBRETTHABER

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P H OTO BY TO N Y P OW E L L . A S S I ST E D BY R O B E RT J O H N SO N

FROMRUSSIA WITHLOVE


YGL2014 ashington may well be the ancestral home of the power couple. Whether the last name is Clinton, Kerry, Dole, Dingell or Jordan, husbands and wives now share alpha dog status here with a frequency that would have made your grandmother’s housecoat spontaneously combust. But for all the power, dynamism and notoriety these high-profile duos generate, none brings the heat quite as literally as Alexander Ovechkin and Maria Kirilenko — the former possessing a slap-shot that registers 100 m.p.h., the latter boasting a first serve that nudges the radar gun even higher. Despite their Russian heritage, The Capitals’ captain and the WTA tennis star have rapidly become one of Washington’s royal couples. The two became engaged last winter — just 15 months after laying eyes on each other. Ovechkin was in New York in September of 2011 tending to promotional business with the NHL, when he and a few friends decided to head across the East River to see some tennis at the U.S. Open. Ovechkin is a fan of Rafael Nadal and had tickets to see Spanish superstar play Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals that afternoon. As it happens, Nadal dispatched Roddick in just 113 minutes, leaving Ovechkin ample time to stroll through Flushing Meadows’ outer practice courts. That’s where he happened upon a statuesque blonde with a blistering forehand and the comforting sounds of Russian dripping from her lips. Kirilenko was warming up for the doubles semifinal later that evening. As she was leaving the court, Ovechkin — marshalling the courage he normally reserves for a scrum along Verizon Center’s dasher boards — introduced himself to his countrywoman. Two hours later, the three-time NHL MVP was doing something he wouldn’t have remotely predicted when the day began — cheering wildly at a women’s doubles match. “I saw her and she saw me, and she fell in love right away,” Alex quips, flashing his puck-altered gap-toothed smile. Maria, knowing better, glances askew at him and chuckles, accomplishing what few in the NHL have been able to over the past decade — put Alex Ovechkin in his place. Their first date was one of the postmodern variety. It occurred just hours after they met at the U.S. Open — it happened via Skype from their respective New York City hotel rooms. That conversation would foreshadow Alex and Maria’s ongoing quest to remain connected as their careers usher them to far-flung corners of the planet. “Cell phones, Skype, text messages, emails — when I have a free minute, I text her. When she has a free minute, she texts me,” Ovechkin says. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, whose fortune Is predicated on human connectivity, believes Ovechkin and Kirilenko are not only

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good for each other, but represent the prototype for the next generation of global power couples. “They’re children of Web 2.0,” Leonsis explains. “They’ve grown up on mobile and the web, and as they travel, they’re communicating and staying close. And I really believe you’re going to see more couples like this, who can stay connected no matter where they are.” When they’re in the U.S., home is Ovechkin’s sprawling estate in McLean. (He upgraded last year from his bachelor townhouse in Arlington.) Alex happily surrendered interior design responsibilities to Maria and his mother Tatyana — all except for two rooms, where he maintained sway: the master bedroom and the movie theater. As for the rest, Ovechkin displayed an early understanding of what some might call male matrimonial peacekeeping: As Kirilenko explains, “Every time I ask his opinion, he says to me, ‘Whatever. If you like it, I like it.’” If that strikes you as an unexpected level of serenity for a guy who has a reputation for revving his engine at maximum power — both on and off the ice — you’re not alone. Hand over a $124 million-dollar contract and global celebrity status to a twenty-something male and there’s a good chance he’ll find the inside of a nightclub, a vodka bottle and a woman’s negligee. Ovechkin found his share of all three during his single days. In fact, in 2010-’11 as Ovechkin’s on-ice production waned and whispers surfaced that he was overweight and under-committed, former Caps goaltender Olaf Kolzig accused the superstar of being “wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” But shortly thereafter, almost as mysteriously as they tapered, Ovechkin’s prodigious hockey powers returned. Last season, he reclaimed his status as the league’s top-goal scorer, and as of this season’s mid-way point, he heads that list again. The timing of Ovechkin’s resurgence coincides more-than-loosely with the growth of his relationship with Kirilenko. Likewise, Kirilenko has found herself producing the best tennis results of her career since Ovechkin became part of her life. After a mostly middling singles career, Kirilenko has made the quarterfinals at both the French Open and Wimbledon in the past 20 months and cracked the top-10 in the WTA rankings for the first time in her career last summer. Those who know both athletes well say it is irrefutable that each has been a major stabilizing force in the other’s life. “We help each other. We support each other,” Ovechkin says. “Because she is an athlete, she knows when I am in-season I need time and space just to relax and be comfortable. And I do the same for her.” Notwithstanding the magical powers of Skype, Alex and Maria have done everything they can lately to be by each other’s side

Those who know both athletes well say it is irrefutable that each has been a major stabilizing force in the other’s life.

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“Ovi” as he is affectionately called in action. (Photo courtesy Washington Capitals)

Maria at the 2010 US Open. (via Flickr Christian Mesiano)

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when travel schedules allow. After the hockey season ended last spring, Alex accompanied Maria to both the French Open and Wimbledon, where he became the highest-priced racket caddie in WTA history. Likewise, Maria has become a fixture at Capitals games an ardent team supporter. She is a frequent invitee to Leonsis’ owner’s suite, but she prefers to sit in the seats at ice-level with Alex’s family. “When he scores, he always looks for me and if I’m not there, he might get worried.” To further demonstrate her commitment to being a hockey spouse, Maria has begun taking skating lessons from Donna Oates, wife of Caps head coach Adam Oates. Asked how she’s coming along, Kirilenko replies, “not good.” Kirilenko will be rocking a slightly different hue of red later this month when the 2014 Winter Olympics descend on the couple’s home country. Maria will be watching intently in Sochi as Ovechkin plays in his third Olympic Games for Team Russia, seeking to rectify one of the most glaring inequities in their relationship — the fact that she owns an Olympic medal and he does not. (Kirilenko won bronze in doubles at the London Games in 2012.) Ovechkin and the Russians were favored to win the hockey gold four years ago in Vancouver, but were eliminated by Canada in the quarterfinals. Even Ovechkin’s mother boasts Olympic superiority over her son, having been part of Russia’s gold medal women’s basketball team Montreal in 1976 and again in Moscow in 1980. The pressure to rectify that on home ice in Sochi will be immense. “It’s probably the biggest moment in my life,” Ovechkin confesses. “Everybody in Russia right now is crazy about it. It starts with our families, and then our friends, our coaching staff, even the President and all the government. I hope for a medal.” It would certainly make for a memorable year — an Olympic medal followed by a wedding. The couple is tight-lipped about the details of their nuptials, except to say they will take place in Russia sometime this year after the hockey season ends. Of course, Washingtonians hope that’s later rather than sooner due to a protracted Caps playoff run. In that vein, as our interview concluded, I asked Ovechkin which he thought would happen first: he and the Caps winning a Stanley Cup or his fiancée winning a grand slam singles title. Alex answered calmly, but decisively, “Probably I’ll win the Stanley Cup first.” I asked Maria if she agreed, but before she could answer, Alex interrupted with a smirk and said, “Yes.” Being a modern power couple seems to include knowing when to cede your power. Brett Haber is a television sports commentator for Tennis Channel and NBC’s Olympic unit. He spent 10 years as a local sports anchor in Washington at WTTG and WUSA. Brett is a contributing editor for Washington Life; he lives in Bethesda.

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From Russia With Love - Alex Ovechkin and Maria Kirilenko