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It's springtime in Washington, D.C., where the streets are bustling once again with men in loosened ties and suit jackets draped over their forearms. Women have traded in earth tones for bright colors and begun to exercise their right to bare arms on the wide walkways of the capital, which are now crowded with outdoor cafés and lively conversation. With its white stone architecture gleaming under a cloudless sky and the cherry blossoms bursting forth, the city feels refreshed. Last week Congress even agreed on something, an accord to end the furloughs for air-traffic controllers. The Nationals are just 2½ games back in the NL East. Bryce Harper is batting .360. The Capitals are in the playoffs, against the long odds set by their dreadful start, a new coach and a short season. And their superstar, Alex Ovechkin, is in love.
It began in September of 2011, when Ovechkin was in New York City on a preseason press junket for the NHL's biggest stars. After his interviews and promo shoots were done, he was invited to go to the U.S. Open. Having never been to a tennis match, Ovechkin went to Flushing Meadow on a lark. "Destiny," he said last week through his signature gap-toothed smile at Washington's practice facility in Arlington, Va. "I believe in destiny."
Ovechkin wandered over to a practice court where Maria Kirilenko was warming up with her doubles partner, Nadia Petrova. They were fellow Russians, so Ovechkin struck up an easy conversation. He insists he wasn't nervous about approaching the blonde beauty, but Kirilenko thinks he was, a little. "When are you guys playing?" he finally asked.
And so Ovechkin sat in the grandstand at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and watched the women's doubles semifinal. (Kirilenko and Petrova lost to Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova 6--7, 6--2, 3--6.) He and Kirilenko exchanged numbers, untroubled by the inconvenience of living thousands of miles and an ocean apart—he in D.C., she in Moscow.
"Our connection was over the phone, over Skype," Kirilenko said last Thursday in Russian through SI reporter Anastassia Smorodinskaya. "For a long time we didn't actually see each other, but even with the distance between us, it felt like we had known each other for a long time."
The long-distance love affair has helped the 27-year-old Capitals captain change his old ways. "I don't think [the relationship] changed my personality, but it's changed my lifestyle," he says. "No more crazy stuff like I did in the summers."
What kind of crazy stuff?
"You don't want to know," he says with a smile. It's the same grin captured in photographs taken during the 2010 offseason, when the two-time Hart Trophy winner was snapped at a bikini- and beer-fueled party on a yacht in Turkey. A year later the hockey world debated whether the paunch he sported in a July interview for the team website was a video illusion or a beer gut. But this past summer, the pictures were different. The most embarrassing shots of Ovechkin were the PG-rated selfies he and Kirilenko posted to Twitter from the London Olympics, where she, with Petrova, won a bronze medal in women's doubles.
"I don't want to do [the crazy stuff] because I know she's going to be not happy about it," Ovechkin says. "Now I know if I'm going to do something stupid, she's going to find out, and it's going to be over. And I don't want that."
Ovechkin proposed to Kirilenko on New Year's Eve while he was playing for Dynamo Moscow in the KHL. They have yet to set a date for the wedding, but since the NHL began its lockout-shortened, 48-game season in January, Kirilenko has spent much of her time between tournaments cheering on her beau in Washington. "I feel he's always looking at me, at where I'm sitting," she says. "So we're connected like that, and I'm certain that it helps him."