Ahmed Atayev, a Minnetonka tennis player from Turkmenistan, is often asked if he is a spy. "People have asked me that before," he says. "They hear I’m from Turkmenistan and that I speak Russian and they don’t know.” Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
“Are you a spy?”
It’s a question meant facetiously, of course, a playful reference to Ahmed Atayev’s origins in Turkmenistan and his ability to speak Russian fluently.
The Minnetonka senior pauses and cocks his head slightly, a puckish grin creeping across his face. He’s heard this question before and isn’t afraid to play along, giving the questioner a moment of uncertainty before he breaks into a wide smile.
“Yes, I am a spy,” he says, before relaxing and shaking his head and chuckling. “No, I’m not a spy. People have asked me that before. They hear I’m from Turkmenistan and that I speak Russian and they don’t know.”
Right now, more than 10,000 miles from where he grew up, the only intrigue Atayev is facing is where he will play in the lineup for the Skippers, the state’s top-ranked boys’ tennis team. Right now, he’s set to play No. 2 singles.
It might seem like a small thing to someone from one of the most volatile regions of the world. But to Atayev, who played tennis in his home city of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, joining a high school tennis team in Minnesota was an adventure.
“I’d never played on a team before,” he said. “It was all new to me.”
Atayev and his family emigrated to Minnetonka in the fall of 2015 from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic adjacent to the Caspian Sea. It shares borders with Iran on the southwest and Afghanistan on the southeast, two countries that make many Americans nervous.
Atayev knows this. His family did not come to the United States to avoid persecution. Rather, his father, who worked for the Turkmenistani state department, and mother, a dentist, wanted to fulfill a dream. Still, the politics surrounding the region are impossible to ignore.
“I’m very interested in politics,” he said. “It’s different than it is here. We’re very close to Russia. We see ourselves as Russians. But I don’t see what the countries do. I see the people, and they’re the same. A lot of them are afraid of America, just like Americans are afraid of Russia. But you know the people, and they’re just like people everywhere. They’re people, not countries.”
Life in Turkmenistan was far from a third-world experience for Atayev. His family members did well for themselves in Ashgabat, a city he calls “beautiful. It’s got a lot of nice, white marble buildings. It’s very safe, very clean.”
Yet it wasn’t the United States.
“I love my country, but there’s not much opportunity there,” he says. “Not like here.”
Since arriving in the Twin Cities, Atayev has fit in well with the typical American teenager. In addition to playing tennis, he gets good grades and has worked a number of part-time jobs. His favorite store? Target.
“Especially the one in Minnetonka,” he said. “I got a job in the produce department one month after we got here and worked there for a while.”
Assimilation aside, there are notable differences between him and his classmates. He lives in an apartment near the high school with his mother, father and two sisters but works two jobs to help sustain himself. When there’s work to be done, whether in school or out, he jumps on the task at hand. Procrastination, it seems, is a foreign concept.
“I want to be independent,” he says firmly. “I want to make it myself.”
“He gets things done,” said Ben Wheaton, the Skippers’ No. 1 singles player and Atayev’s closest friend on the team.
Wheaton said Atayev brings more to the team than just skill with a tennis racket.
“He gives you a different perspective,” Wheaton said. “We tend to associate Middle Eastern countries with being war zones, but he’s a completely normal kid. We talk about current events, and he’s been in the thick of it. It’s nice to talk to someone like that.”
That’s not to say he’s not a typical teenager. Atayev says what he misses most about Turkmenistan are his friends.
“There’s no place or anything back home that I miss. It’s mostly my friends,” he said. “I talk to them a lot. Sometimes on social media, sometimes I call them.”
He stops and grins sheepishly.
“It costs a lot more to call, but sometimes I do it anyway.”
With Ashgabat time 10 hours ahead of Minnetonka, the ultra-responsible Atayev’s late-night chats with friends back home frequently cost him sleep. “He stays up really late because of the different time zones,” Wheaton said. “He’s always tired. I have to tell him sometimes that it’s time to go to sleep.”
With Atayev having never experienced team tennis before arriving at Minnetonka, Skippers coach Dave Stearns wasn’t sure what he was getting. It didn’t take him long to see the potential for his team’s growth off the court, an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.
“Our guys have learned as much from him as he has from us,” Stearns said. “We’ve learned to appreciate what we have. He comes from a country where they don’t have much, but there’s always a smile on his face. He’s loving being here.”
Adding Atayev to the roster last season was the bump the Skippers needed to win their first team championship since 1974. His three-set victory at No. 4 singles in the Class 2A quarterfinals — saving two match points in the final set — lifted Minnetonka over rival Edina and gave the Skippers the momentum needed to win the title the next day.
“He’s a very talented player, and there’s really nothing he can’t do,’’ Stearns said. “He loves the camaraderie of team tennis.”
Tennis may have a relatively low profile among high school sports, but to Atayev, it’s been the linchpin to everything he’s done in the time he’s been at Minnetonka.
“It’s been very good for me,” he said. “I’ve made friends and it helped me to see what it’s like going to school here. I worked very hard to get ready for this season. I couldn’t wait for it to start.”
He has decided that his future is in Minnesota, even thought he doesn’t plan to renounce his Turkmenistani citizenship. There are college plans, but he has yet to decide on a school.
He plans to return to Turkmenistan in September. He’s going to represent his country in the 2017 Asian Games, to be held in Ashgabat, and return soon after.
This, after all, has become home.
“I love Minnesota,” he said. “I even love the cold. It’s hot in Turkmenistan. The change is nice.”
Stearns has a theory for why Atayev has adapted so quickly.
“That smile is always there, no matter what happens,” Stearns said. “The sun is always out in this kid’s heart.”