Jenia Grebennikov


France libero Jenia Grebennikov moved from Italy to Russia at the beginning of the season, swapping the Modena jersey for Zenit Saint Petersburg's. In this interview, he speaks to the French Volleyball Federation about taking on this new challenge in his playing career and looks back at winning gold for his country at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on the level of the Russian Championship?

It's pretty much what I thought it would be. Powerful play features prominently. There is a lot of risk-taking on serve and attack, which can lead to mistakes. But when things work, it's devastating. It's the typical Russian game. Everyone jumps very high and hits very hard, it's almost like a contest to see who can jump the highest and hit the hardest! There are also a lot of high balls. It's not as fast as what I experienced in Italy, but in terms of power, it's superior. And the guys slow down a lot of balls on the block. Even against the last team in the Championship, you have a guy who can come off the bench and hit a missile. You wonder how he does it. And it can go in all directions. You just have to get used to that power.

St Petersburg is like Paris in the snow Jenia Grebennikov

Does it force you to change your game?

Yes, of course. It depends on the team we are playing against, but I have to adapt. And it's a great experience for me to see another style of play.

And what do you think of your club, of the infrastructure? What are their ambitions?

Zenit are still a young club, just five years old. We still need to grow, but we are well surrounded. It is all very professional. The only problem is that we don't train in our match hall. We have a volleyball academy that welcomes us every day to train, we just have a session the day before the matches at the match venue, which is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

That said, the objective is to win! So there's inevitably a bit of pressure, but that's how it is with all clubs who have ambitions. I had already experienced that in Italy. I think that if we have our full team, everything is possible, even if the level is very high.

And in the Champions League?

It's obviously also an objective. We want to try to go as far as possible (Zenit are currently top of Pool D). But here, it's mainly the Championship that matters.

You recently played in front of some of your family. Where was that?

Yes, I have some family on my father's side who live in Nizhny Novgorod. I hadn't been there for 15 years and it was really nice to play in front of them. There were 15 people, including my uncle and my cousin with his family. It was really cool - I was very happy to see them again.

How are you adapting to life in Russia?

Honestly, I'm really surprised. I didn't expect such a good quality of life. It's true that it's cold. The trips are a little long because we often have to change planes. But the city of Saint Petersburg is incredible, magnificent, it's like Paris under snow with fewer traffic jams! I'm lucky to live in a beautiful neighbourhood, not far from the match venue. I was a bit apprehensive about the food, but again, the restaurants are very good and the prices are fair. The only thing that is a bit more difficult to find is good fruit. Let's say that's the only problem!

Is it cold at the moment?

Frankly, I was expecting worse. It's usually quite dry. The problem is when it's windy, it's really cold. But the quality of the clothes here and of the coats is on another level. They are designed differently and just keep you warm!

We imagine that speaking Russian made it easier for you to integrate?

Yes, it's clearly a big advantage. I jumped straight into things! I don't speak Russian very well, but I make the guys laugh with my French accent. For a foreigner who doesn't speak Russian at all, it's more complicated. There are very few locals who speak English. But some people do make the effort.

What about the fact that you arrived at the club as an Olympic champion who beat Russia in the final of the Games? What kind of a welcome did you get?

Frankly, it's a good thing we beat Russia, because it would have been challenging otherwise! There are four Russian internationals in the team, plus the coach (Tuomas Sammelvuo leads Zenit and the Russian team)! It's true that it helps me. When they argue, I manage to shut them up by reminding them who the Olympic champion is! More seriously, they are happy with their silver medal. I think they are especially angry about losing the match against us in the group phase. If they had beaten us then, we would have been eliminated. They talked to me about that several times.

Do you still think about that Olympic title often?

It's getting a little more distant now. But here, there's always someone to remind me that I'm an Olympic champion. People remember it, so it's cool. And I have the medal at home as well as exchanges with the other French team players to enjoy - even if it is true that, at the moment, those are a little rarer because we are all focusing on the club season.