By Natalia Bykanova
“No,” she said the first time I called her. “Let bygones be bygones. Everything is nearly forgotten. I live a very peaceful and quiet life.”
Natalia Chmyreva, the most promising young player of the mid 1970’s, was polite but did not want to talk to the press. She hasn’t given an interview since her 25th birthday, when she quit the sport with not half of her talent realized.
She surrendered the third time I called her. “You can come if you need it so badly”, she said at last.
The former Soviet champion lives in Moscow in a three-room apartment together with her parents and a black cat named Musia. She does not attend any tennis tournaments and even the Kremlin Cup men’s tournament held in Moscow each November fails to draw her attention. “I’m overfed with tennis,” said Natasha “Once it made me the happiest person and once it made me the most miserable.”
“Natasha never fitted into our system,” claims Michael Chesalov, her former hitting partner. “Unlike the disciplined Olga Morozova, Natasha could never keep within the bounds.” In 1980, having won all the winter domestic tournaments, Natasha was expelled from the USSR Federation Cup team and dared to ask the sports bosses why.
“What did you do in Mexico last year?” she heard in reply.
“Just won the World Student Games,” answered the champion.
“What did you do there?” The tone of questioning became threatening. Natasha slammed the door. Her disqualification lasted a whole year.
Few people openly supported Chmyreva at that time. They were afraid that they would lose the opportunity to play abroad if they put in a word for an unwanted person.
Chmyreva was not the only Soviet athlete that was punished with disqualification for spending time with western friends at a western disco. At that time, Russians abroad had to live only in groups, so that everybody was easy to spot. Otherwise one had to write a report detailing where and with whom one spent time. Natasha never wrote such reports. She only wrote about her victories and impressions of tournaments she participated in.
To enter the journalism department of Moscow University, one had to produce at least five published pieces to the examining commission. Chmyreva became a student in 1975 and graduated in 1985, spending twice as much time as one needed for the degree because of tennis. These ten years included the rise and fall of the great Soviet tennis hope.
The rise of the young Muscovite was as swift as her game. Her mother, Svetlana Sevastianova, chief and coach of the “Dynamo” tennis club in Moscow, and her father Yuri Chmyrev, track and field coach, dreamed of making a world star out of their daughter from the time she was seven. All the family talks centered around Natasha’s great future.
Svetlana had her own definite approach to her child’s upbringing. “We didn’t want our daughter to have any complexes. She was the best. Why shouldn’t she know it and behave accordingly, like a queen of tennis?”
All this, combined with a lively emotional nature, resulted in some extraordinary gestures from Natasha. “She never chose her words and could thus hurt somebody unconsciously,” remembers a former rival. Chmyreva could carelessly abuse an umpire, or change her shirt without going to the locker room. She was the first to shock conservative Moscow audiences by playing without a bra and it was Chmyreva who introduced to Russia a new on-court hairstyle: she tied up her loose red hair with a band like an American Indian.
“What a controversial person you are,” Ted Tinling used to say to her, and, fittingly, he always used contrasting colours when making Natasha’s dresses: white and black, pink and black, light blue and black. Natasha keeps them all washed, ironed and untouched in a wardrobe.
Chmyreva brandished an athletic game more often seen in men’s tennis and her rare sense of the ball meant that she had the ability to play any stroke. On hard courts it was practically impossible to stop her. A hurricane.
Natasha was used to risk, since she spent most of her childhood climbing trees and jumping from garage roofs. On court, she always rushed forward, enjoying the taste of risky flight that the serve-volley game gave her. The famous theoretician of Soviet tennis, Professor Semen Beltis-Geiman, patronized Natasha. To him, Chmyreva was the personification of what he considered the ideal tennis player.
The professor introduced a new scoring system in domestic junior tournaments in the ‘70’s. For the volley or service winner, the umpire would award two points instead of one. That’s how he tried to stimulate an active, aggressive game. For the two years that this system was functioning, it took Natasha not more than several minutes to beat her opponents.
With the rise of Chris Evert, tennis fashion changed totally. Most of the newcomers imitated her style, but not Chmyreva. At a World Team tennis event in 1977, she beat Evert twice, signaling a wider victory for the adventurous player over the mechanical baseliner. In 1975, a 19-year-old Martina Navratilova did not return to Czechoslovakia after an American tour. Natasha always returned. “My parents and friends live in the Soviet Union, I have too many roots in this country,” Chmyreva replied to those who asked her why she didn’t defect. Natasha had more complexes than she thought.
Chmyreva returned to the USSR after that World Team Tennis event in 1977, knowing fairly well that it was her last time in the United States. Preparing for the 1980 Olympic Games, Soviet rulers forbade Soviet athletes from participating in competitions in which athletes from the Republic of South Africa took part. The USSR were afraid that black African nations would boycott the Games. But as it happened, it was Africa that was fully represented in Moscow. The whole civilized world ignored the 22nd century Olympiad because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pre-Olympic prohibition closed the world arena to Soviet players, as practically every tournament had players from South Africa. At the last tournament played by Soviets abroad, the situation turned dramatic.
“I don’t want to recall it. I felt very much ashamed,” said Natasha. Olga Morozova agreed to talk about it. “It was in Washington in the first round of doubles competition that we had opponents from South Africa. We couldn’t play and had to think of an excuse. So we finally said that Natasha had stomach troubles and skipped the match. In the singles, Natasha had a South African opponent in the second round. She didn’t play. At press conferences we were bombarded with questions and had to lie. Natasha couldn’t stand it and got very nervous because of the necessity to lie all the time.”
When the Iron Curtain slammed down shut behind her, the 18-year-old Chmyreva was ranked 13th in the world. She never got over this step. Having won by that time all the world junior tournaments except the French Open, which she was never sent to, holding two junior Wimbledon crowns and beating half the top 10 world players, she was shot down at the start of her flight and never recovered from the blow. The steeper the flight, the more painful the fall.
Morozova was sceptical when assessing the potential of her former opponent. “Natasha had a lack of self-control and an unbalanced character,” said Olga. “It’s hard for me to say whether she could have achieved more or not. Her character could lead her to failure.”
But the unbalanced Chmyreva at the age of 15 beat the very balanced Morozova right after her great success at Wimbledon ’74, where Olga lost only to Evert in the final. Three years later, Natasha won two matches against Chris, the iron lady of tennis.
Alexander Bogomolov, Natasha’s former mixed partner, thinks differently: “Chmyreva became unbalanced only when she understood she was not allowed to have a perspective of her own, due to the country’s policy. She knew she could achieve more and the impossibility of realizing her emotional and physical talents caused stress.”
Soviet officials never displayed generosity when it came to the money sports stars earned. When, for reaching the semi-final of the Virginia Slims of Chicago in ’77 Natasha earned $5000 prizemoney, sports leaders decided that $280 would be more than enough for her. But it wasn’t the final figure, as they kept back the price of living allowances. As a result she had $180 out of her $5000. Very fair arithmetic, isn’t it? At that time, any talk of prizemoney was considered disgraceful. Russians were all brought up to false morality. Nowadays we reap the fruits of that idiocy. But when you have a great aim to sustain you, even money is something you forget about. “It was all the same to me to eat a hamburger for lunch or a good piece of beef. The only real thing was the victory,” explained Natasha.
Although Chmyreva was very excitable in her play, her emotions never spread beyond the tennis court. At school she was known more as the best student in English class: she still knows the language perfectly. “ It seems to me that sometimes emotional behavior on the court was the result of the great desire of her parents to make her a great player,” said Alexander Bogomolov. “The aim to win by any means was set up before the girl and implemented in her mind too early. Children can’t stand such constant pressure and stresses are inevitable.
At 15, Chmyreva won through the qualifying at Wimbledon but wasn’t included in the main draw of the tournament. Englishmen thought that the All England Championships were not child’s play, even if the child won the right to participate. Times change.
In Melbourne at the 1975 Australian Open, Chmyreva reached the semi-finals and on centre court lost a tough match to Martina Navratilova, who was two years older. Most other tennis stars at the time were of mature age and Natasha looked like an infant prodigy among them.
Natasha first felt herself like a beautiful lady and not just an awkward teen at a White House reception. “In 1976 at the Virginia Slims tournament of the best 16 players,” remembers Natasha, “I was welcomed by President Ford. There were luxurious limousines that took us to the White House and a portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy on the wall. Ford shook me by the hand and asked something about Breshnev.” The Soviet leader preferred hockey to tennis and never invited tennis players to Georgevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
After 1977, Chmyreva trained with all her might so that she would still be in contention for the top after the Moscow games in 1980. In 1978 she won the championships of the USSR, in 1979 the World Student Games. By the time the Moscow games were over, Chmyreva was only 22 and had time again to conquer world tennis. The term of her disqualification had come to an end.
But at that time, Olga Morozova became the head coach of the USSR national team and at the first coaches’ meeting declared: ”I need Chmyreva only as a hitting partner for the young promising players.” So Chmyreva’s career was ended.
Olga dreamed of creating a teenaged national team which would reach the top of world tennis. The dream came true and her players twice played in the final of the Federation Cup. But not Natasha. At that time there was no other way for Soviet tennis players to participate in pro events abroad other than as a member of the Soviet team.
That was the heaviest blow. It took Chmyreva years to overcome the deep stress caused by the failure of all her hopes and the impossibility of self-realization. The former coach of Andrei Chesnokov, Tatiana Naumko, in discussing the way in which the Soviet tennis system stifled individual talents, remarked very correctly, “We’ll never have our own McEnroe in the Soviet Union”. It is a comment pertinent to Chmyreva’s situation. So Natasha lives with no great interest for life, reading, watching videos, chatting with friends and never asking, “Who won Wimbledon this year ?”
By Joel Drucker, Tennis Magazine, November 1998
Natasha Zvereva knows she could have been a singles champion. But with millions in the bank from a Hall-of-Fame doubles career, she has no reason to look back.
Every morning when Natasha Zvereva wakes up, she asks herself one question: ‘What is today?’
If she’s in Newport Beach, Calif., the upscale seaside community where she lives when on leave from the WTA Tour, her day might include one or more of the following: dipping into a collection of short stories by fellow Russian emigre Vladimir Nabokov; shopping at one of the many upscale boutiques in her town; hitting the dance floor with a passion she seldom displays on a tennis court; or hosting a gourmet dinner for half a dozen friends. Following a three-week run of California tournaments this summer, for instance, Zvereva concocted a feast of osso bucco, asparagus tips, criss-cross fried potatoes and an exceptionally buttery fruit tart.
Oh, yes, also on the agenda: Hitting tennis balls for an hour with fellow Newport Beach resident Kevin Forbes, who was ranked in Southern California as a junior, or former roommate and current doubles partner Lindsay Davenport. We’re not talking a 60-minute Jimmy Connors workout, where it’s combat to the death by the fourth ball. Rather, Zvereva’s practices are nice, friendly hits that usually lack the intensity of one of Zvereva’s typical trips to the supermarket. And don’t even ask about the gym or the track, today or any other day.
Subtract the home-cooked meal, throw in a couple of matches and you’ve got a good picture of Zvereva’s life on the road, too. Sometimes, such as at the final of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford this past July, she will step onto the court to play a doubles match without having struck a single warm-up ball. That day, she hid behind sunglasses and, aside from her usual pigtails, wore a distracted, almost fatigued, look. Yet once the match began, she brightened considerably, mixing laughter with play as consistent and creative as virtually any doubles player’s in tennis history. Roughly an hour later, she and Davenport, the top seeds, had beaten Larisa Neiland and Elena Tatarkova in straight sets.
For Davenport, the victory completed a daily double; she had won the singles crown earlier in the afternoon. But Zvereva, in a pattern that typifies her career, dominated in doubles while failing to advance to the final weekend on her own.
Her Hall-of-Fame-caliber resume features more than 70 doubles titles, including 20 Grand Slam crowns. Singles is another story. Though Zvereva climbed to No. 5 by age 18, she has earned only three solo tournament victories, and her lone Grand Slam final appearance, a crushing straight-set loss to Steffi Graf at the French Open, was back in 1988. Zvereva, in fact, has earned the most prize money ($6.6 million) of any woman never to have won a major singles title.
‘I don’t know why, but doubles just comes to me,’ she says. ‘It always has. It’s just too easy. I can get away with more things, my serve is less of a liability and I only have to cover half a court.’
For a fleeting moment this summer, Zvereva raised the hopes of her many fans that she might make a run at the singles glory many had forecast for her as a teenager.
It happened on grass, the surface that best suits her smorgasbord of speeds, spins, angles and volleys — and her short attention span. First, at Eastbourne, she sliced and diced Venus Williams en route to a 6-2, 6-1 win in the second round.
That was just a warm-up — literally — to her Wimbledon performance, where, in the third round, she defeated Steffi Graf for the first time in 19 meetings. During the course of that 6-4, 7-5 triumph, Zvereva converted 78 percent of her first serves, cleverly directed balls to Graf’s weaker backhand wing and used a deft assortment of drop shots and daring net forays.
Five days later Zvereva straight-setted Monica Seles, covering the court with uncommon grace and using her varied shot arsenal to render ineffective Seles’s double-fisted bashes. It was just the second time ever that one player had beaten Graf and Seles at the same event. Though Zvereva subsequently lost a three-set semifinal to Nathalie Tauziat, her All-England performance boosted her singles ranking from No. 22 to No. 15.
But it turns out her success, rather than emblematic of a renewed commitment to singles, was an anomaly.
Her singles goals remain modest, if not also curious:
‘I would like to be in the Top 10, but just barely,’ she says, lowering her voice and slowing down her words.’I would be really happy to be No. 8 to 10, though I wouldn’t complain at No. 7. I’m coming from the point of view that I can get there on my natural ability alone.’
‘I’m very lazy,’ she continues. ‘I’m not going to commit myself to hard work.’
Sitting in the player’s lounge at Stanford, still sweating from an early-round singles victory, Zvereva addresses the chasm between her singles and doubles records. ‘It’s not that singles doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘People make a mistake. They think doubles is what I always wanted to do. That’s not true. Singles was always No. 1.’
Indeed, Zvereva seemed a good bet to eclipse the solo achievements of Russia’s previous best woman player, Olga Morozova, a Top 10 player during the 1970s and Wimbledon finalist in ’74. Zvereva used her versatile all-court game to win three legs of the junior Grand Slam in 1987. A year later, as a 17-year-old rookie pro, she defeated Martina Navratilova at the French Open and, two rounds later, found herself in the final.
‘We’re talking talent like a John McEnroe or a Martina Hingis,’ says Morozova, a former Russian national team coach who now works for the British Lawn Tennis Association. ‘She could do anything with the ball.’
But after falling victim to both jitters and an overpowering Graf 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes (record time for a Grand Slam final) — a match she claims not to remember at all — Zvereva slowly regressed in singles. She has cracked
the Top 10 only once since 1988 and plummeted as low as No. 57 in early 1997 following an indifferent, injury plagued 1996.
Part of the problem is that despite her respectable size (5-foot-8, 138 pounds), Zvereva has never developed a big weapon. As a result, she must grind out matches, something her mind simply won’t will her to do. ‘I would like a little more power,’ she says, squinting, laughing and holding her thumb and index finger an inch apart. ‘I can’t just hit the first or second ball for a winner. I have to confuse people, which means I always have to counterpunch. Sometimes it’s very frustrating.’
But there’s more to it than that. While Zvereva claims to care about singles results, her actions indicate otherwise: She hasn’t had a coach since 1990. She has done nothing to improve her suspect speed by means of sprint and drill work. And she admits to losing her concentration during lengthy singles matches.
‘We thought if we crossed the border, life would be easy, that it would always be sunny and fun,’ Morozova says, speaking of both her own career and Zvereva’s. ‘But then Natasha saw that it would take even more, and
she wasn’t willing to work as hard as she had when she was younger.’
Zvereva agrees with that assessment.
‘I have pretty much been coasting,’ she says, without a hint of remorse. ‘Putting in more time on the court only bores me. It doesn’t make me better. I start to expect things of myself. I don’t think I can handle it mentally.’
This ‘slacker’ approach is in large measure a reaction to her micro-managed youth in the former Soviet Union. Her parents, Marat Zverev and Nina Zvereva, were both tennis instructors. Early on, Marat, who coached at the Soviet Army Club, decided that tennis would be his daughter’s passport to freedom. Starting at age 7, Natalia (the name given to Zvereva by her parents, rather than the name she legally changed it to in 1994) was pushed toward greatness.
‘It was a very hard working environment, hour after hour of tennis and drilling and matches,’ she says, her unblinking brown eyes displaying the weariness of a gulag survivor.
Zvereva began fighting for her independence from what she terms a ‘repressed’ lifestyle at age 18. First, with the encouragement of her father, she took on the Soviet Sports Committee, which kept the bulk of her 1988 prize money ($361,354), reportedly granting her a mere $1,000 weekly allowance. In April 1989, following her loss in the final of the Family Circle Magazine Cup at Hilton Head Island, S.C., Zvereva told a national television audience that she’d like to keep every nickel of her prize money.
With the Cold War thawing, Soviet authorities could ill afford the public relations debacle of a star athlete like Zvereva defecting. In the end, she was allowed to keep both her winnings and her nationality (which, following
the breakup of the USSR into separate nations in 1991, became — and remains — Belarussian).
Then, in 1990, Zvereva declared her freedom from her father by relieving him of his coaching responsibilities, opting to travel on tour by herself. ‘It was painful for both of us at first,’ she says.
Zvereva remains close with her mother (she visits her family in Minsk, Belarus, four times a year), but she and her father have grown apart in recent years. ‘His life is tennis, tennis, tennis, and that’s not me,’ she says.
Though Zvereva’s lack of motivation has proved a fatal flaw in singles, it hasn’t prevented her from becoming one of the premier doubles players of this era. Her remarkable reflexes help her finish off points quickly; her sharp angles enable her to take full advantage of the alleys; and her desire seems to rise a notch when she’s part of a team.
‘When others are counting on her, Natasha will never let them down,’ says Morozova.
‘She’s just the best doubles partner, so supportive, friendly, fun and smart.’
Before pairing up with Davenport this year, Zvereva won Grand Slam doubles titles with four other women. She and fellow Russian Neiland (nee Savchenko) teamed to win the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon doubles titles. When the duo parted on friendly terms soon after winning the latter crown, Zvereva joined with Pam Shriver to win the ’91 U.S. Open. But it was in 1992, when she teamed with Fernandez, that Zvereva found her perfect doubles partner.
While most legendary duos — Billie Jean King-Rosie Casals, Navratilova-Shriver — were built on the foundation of one great singles player and a less-gifted accomplice, Zvereva-Fernandez was comprised of two solo underachievers who ably filled in each other’s missing pieces. Fernandez’s clean attacking game, so flighty in singles, became rock-solid when wed to Zvereva’s party-girl mix of chips and dips.
‘Neither of them wanted it on their own,’ says Dr. Julie Anthony, a former touring pro and close friend of Fernandez’s. ‘But they knew how to bring out the best in each other.’
And sometimes the worst: Their volatile personalities caused periodic conflicts on and off the court. According to Morozova, ‘Gigi wasn’t such a great influence on Natasha — she could be so temperamental.’
Zvereva and Fernandez attempted a trial separation in early 1997, during which time Zvereva won the Australian Open doubles title paired with Martina Hingis. Later that spring, Zvereva and Fernandez decided to take one more lap around the track together. Their wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon upped their Grand Slam victory total to 14 titles in six years.
Fernandez’s retirement at year’s end terminated their wildly successful partnership. Oddly, neither member of the duo likes talking about it today. Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story. ‘Gigi’s enjoying her life
away from tennis,’ Zvereva explains.
Zvereva is perfunctory in her own analysis of the secret to their success: ‘We had that chemistry.’
Curt answers such as that are representative of Zvereva’s policy of not revealing her true feelings (or much else about her personal life) to anybody — not even friends.
‘I’ve never known anyone like her,’ Davenport says. ‘She’s a neat person, but there are times when I wish I understood her more. She is so independent. She could go anywhere in the world and be totally comfortable being alone.’
Neiland describes Zvereva as ‘a complex person, her own person.’
Anthony believes Zvereva is ‘happier than Monica Seles or Steffi Graf,’ expressly because she isn’t so driven. She adds, though, that ‘Maybe when she gets older and looks back, she’ll wonder if she cheated herself out of the chance to really lay it on the line and go after it.’
But Anthony may be overlooking one important quality about Zvereva: She has always been one to wake up in the morning and think about ‘What is today?’ rather than ‘What could have been yesterday?’
‘I don’t think about the past,’ Zvereva says. ‘I live my life in the present, maybe with just a peek into the future.’
She pauses, then sums up the ‘fun-first, singles-second’ attitude that has characterized her career: ‘You have to want it, and I don’t. I’m not playing for anyone. I’m living my life the way I want.’
“I just tried to keep focused on my game and what I had to do. The motivation was the crowd. They were unbelievable and I have no words to say what it is like to play on this court with this support. Amazing!”
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Photo credit: Marianne
with doubles partner Radek Stepanek:
Photo credit: Marianne
Ana Ivanovic took down Maria Sharapova 6-1 6-4 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Internazionali d’Italia. The loss ended Sharapova’s 12-match winning streak on clay (victories in Stuttgart and Madrid).
Ivanovic looks poised to get back into the top 10 for the first time since 2009. Do you think she can find back the playing level of her amazing 2008 season, when she won Roland Garros and reached the number one ranking?
Photo credit: Marianne
Ana serving for the match (credit: Mauro):
First victory in 7 matches over the Australian for Li Na who breezed into the quarterfinals 6-3 6-1. Her next opponent: Sara Errani.
Photo credit: Marianne