It was the annoyance of not being able to express himself adequately after matches, Ivan Sozonov recalls, that pushed him into learning English.
Now, less than two years after he started taking English lessons, the Russian is quite fluent in the language, although he still harbours some self-doubt. It’s an impressive achievement for someone busy preparing for his third Olympics.
“Our first interview in English is now a meme on the internet,” Sozonov laughs. “After that situation you are uncomfortable, you want to respond correctly to questions. You understand what’s being asked but you can’t answer. So after that I felt upset and I started to listen to interviews, and what sportsmen are answering. I take lessons with a teacher two-three times a week, and I see that my skills have improved.”
On court, he and partner Vladimir Ivanov have had some good results during the pandemic-affected months. Off-court, Sozonov’s favourite worlds are music, literature and history. He is one of the very few elite players with an abiding interest in the classics. He speaks fondly of his favourite authors: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac.
“I had an interesting childhood,” Sozonov, who was born and grew up in Yekaterinburg, recounts. “I had a good education. Everybody in my family has hobbies, and discipline. I had a good high school education.
“I started with Russian classics, then French classics. I like all French writers… and during one period I started reading historical books. And I keep reading biographies of personalities, it could be of musicians or writers, or even negative personalities. I read the story of one person, to understand the period, you can know many interesting things.
“When I came to Moscow I had free time to read and I liked that. I started with Russian classics, like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy…”
His reading of literature and history helps inform his perspective when he travels. Visits abroad are more than just about tournaments; Sozonov is curious about the lives of people in places far away from his home.
“I have more experience than most people in Russia, because we’ve travelled to some 50 countries. It’s interesting to see how people live. I’m curious about life in different countries and I want to talk to them, and now I’ve started learning English so I can talk to more people. We’ve had some great experiences.”
Another interest is music. Sozonov has been learning the guitar, and he wishes he was better at it. The one grudge he harbours is that his father, a versatile musician and sportsman, never taught him the guitar while he was growing up.
“I never played it when I was younger,” he says. “I really hate my father for that, that he didn’t teach me some simple chords. When I started at 25 it got difficult for me. He’s a really good musician. He can sing and he can play every song. We have a gathering with my friends and my father plays some songs, and we have a nice time. He makes us feel like superstars! It’s a great feeling.”
“My father came for some tournaments and he brings the guitar with him, and we have a good time in the evenings. It helped us win the 2014 European Championships.
While badminton has been his life, these off-court companions keep Sozonov engaged with a deeper appreciation of the world.
“It’s a big education when you listen to the right music,” he says. “Of course I can listen to rap and rock, but I like old school. I started listening to classical music. When you grow up you appreciate that more.
“I started playing the guitar in 2015 but I haven’t practiced it often. I know the main things but I want more, I want to improve my skills, but I don’t have enough time. You need to practice it every day, and it’s a difficult routine. When you want to take one more step forward, it’s difficult. But I’m still curious about these hobbies, and I will still continue. These are hobbies for the rest of my life.”