Edbeg-Becker Wimbledon 1988

By Rex Bellamy, London Times, Tuesday July 5 1988

Edberg, aged 22, became Wimbledon champion last evening by beating Boris Becker 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-2 in a final that began on Sunday, was played in three phases, and lasted for a total of two hours and 50 minutes. This was the first Wimbledon singles final to begin one day and end the next.
Edberg is the first Swedish winner since Bjorn Borg in 1980. The title has passed from Pat Cash, an Australian with an apartment in Fulham, to a Swede with an apartment in Kensington. In January of last year Edberg beat Cash in the final of the last Australian championship played on grass.

Five years ago Edberg, having beaten Becker in the first round, won the Wimbledon boys’ title. Becker was favoured to win their long-deferred return match on the famous old lawns but, ultimately, was clearly second best to a man giving a classic demonstration of the serve-and-volley game. Edberg’s mixture of services teased Becker throughout the match.

Becker said later that his preceding matches with Cash and Ivan Lendl had taken a good deal out of him, physically and mentally, and that consequently he was unable to “push” himself when the quality of Edberg’s tennis demanded it. Edberg led 3-2 in the first set overnight but Becker, having won five consecutive games, went to 5-3 and quickly tucked the set away. But he was soon under stress. In the second set Edberg had four break points, Becker one. In the tie-break Edberg instantly took the initiative and Becker, between points, sometimes reeled about like a boxer who was taking too many punches. Edberg was two men in one. Between rallies, he ambled about like a quietly watchful gunslinger. When the ball was in motion, he reacted like lightning, shot from the hip, and seldom missed his target. His serving, volleying, and return of service were exhilarating not least when he was volleying or driving on the backhand.

Always springy in the forecourt, Edberg usually gave a little hop of satisfaction after putting away a volley. There was many a fleeting hint of a private smile. Edberg sometimes punched the air, too.

Such indications of pleasure were never excessive and were always swiftly suppressed. Edberg is no man to make a fuss, or to be discourteous to his opponent by giving any sign of gloating. He was happy because he knew that he was playing his best tennis, whereas Becker was not. But Edberg was aware that it could all change, at any moment.

Edberg broke to 2-1 in the third set and in the next game Becker irritably threw down his racket in frustration and was given a warning. Becker changed his racket but in the next game he was briefly embarrassed when he slipped and sat down in the forecourt: and Edberg lobbed him. Again, Becker angrily swished his racket.

Edberg was remorseless. He clinched that third set with a run of four service games in which he conceded only three points. Becker, often shaking his head, was riddled with self-doubt. His usually formidable power game was spluttering the blazing services and returns too sporadic to give Edberg persistent cause for concern.

Yet the tension remained almost tangible, because we knew that although Edberg could play no better, Becker might. But in the first game of the fourth set Becker, serving, went 30-40 down: and a voice from the stands cried “Bye, bye, Boris”.

Becker lost that game with a double-fault and, head bowed, went to the changeover with one strong hand hiding his face. If there was any further doubt in his mind, or Edberg’s, it was dispelled when Edberg broke him again, to 4-1. In that game one of Edberg’s backhands exploded down the court like a shell. Edberg’s service games remained impregnable even in the last game, in which his six services were all second balls. Becker was a broken man. In the last rally he had Edberg at his mercy but dumped an easy backhand into the net. Edberg fell to his knees, hardly believing his luck.

But Edberg had made his own luck, because in the last three sets he never gave Becker the slightest cause for hope, the slightest chance to take a breather and get his act together. So this was not the all-German year. It was the year of Steffi and Stefan.

Graf and Navratilova, Wimbledon 88

By Peter Alfano, New York Times, July 3, 1988

As she stood at the umpire’s chair during the postmatch ceremony – trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the best British tradition – Martina Navratilova could have closed her eyes and recited all the parts by heart. This was the ninth time she had played a major role in this slice of Wimbledon pomp and circumstance, having become as much of a fixture on Centre Court as the Duke and Duchess of Kent. For the first time, however, she would leave without the championship.

That now belongs to Steffi Graf of West Germany, who at 19 is clearly alone at the top of the women’s game. Last year, she assumed the No. 1 ranking from Navratilova, and today, she took the prize that Navratilova values the most.
“This is how it should happen,” Navratilova said. “I lost to a better player on the final day. This is the end of a chapter, passing the torch if you want to call it that.”

Graf struggled at first, then overpowered Navratilova, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, to win her first Wimbledon title. She has now earned three-quarters of the Grand Slam, needing only to win the United States Open in September to complete the task. She would be the first woman to win the Slam since Margaret Court in 1970. Graf won the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June.

There was more at stake, however, than Graf’s Grand Slam ambitions. Navratilova was vying for a record ninth Wimbledon singles championship, which would have enabled her to pass Helen Wills Moody. She had also won six of those titles in succession, a record she holds alone. In past years, Navratilova stood at Centre Court, holding up the large silver plate awarded the winner, likening her collection to chinaware. She wanted to add to her service of eight, she said.

Graf will make that goal more difficult to attain, however, as she showed during this Wimbledon that she will be as difficult to beat on grass as on any other surface. This was considered Navratilova’s last domain. “Getting ready for the final has always been easy for me,” Navratilova said. “I wasn’t nervous or uptight. But Steffi was hitting winners all over the place. She gets to balls no one else can. I got blown out the last two sets. So it wasn’t that tough to accept losing. I could feel what she was feeling, have that same joy because I know what the feeling is.”

Graf tossed her racquet into the box seats, the way she did when she won the French Open for the first time in 1987. An official showed her how to hold the trophy in the traditional display to the photographers and crowd. Navratilova watched, mustering a smile, fingering the much smaller plate given the runner-up.

“Winning is such a special feeling,” Graf said. “I was confident before the match, but the first set made me very angry. I just wanted to hang in there, to show I could play much better than I was.”

Graf is noted for her topspin forehand, easily the most intimidating shot among the women. Unlike the patty-cake baseliners of the previous generation, she plays aggressively from the backcourt, overpowering other baseliners, discouraging serve-and-volleyers with buggy-whip passing shots.

She is more, though, than a one-shot player. In the past year, Graf’s serve has become formidable and she is also developing a better-than-average net game. Her backhand, which Navratilova tried to exploit, is considered her weakness, although it is better than most. Navratilova sliced her serve and ground strokes to Graf’s backhand in the first set, just as she had in last year’s final. Graf was up a break at 4-2, but the strategy began to pay off as Navratilova broke in the 10th game and again in the 12th to win the set.

“My backhand was terrible,” Graf said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable out there. I had been trying to get good angles on my returns, but in the second set I played more to her volley, letting her hit it, then getting another chance.”

When Navratilova broke in the second game of the second set to lead, 2-0, the match appeared to be over. Graf’s shoulders sagged; she looked defeated. Navratilova was all clenched fist and swagger. But Graf broke back in the third game, hitting two service-return winners on her forehand. That was to be the turning point in the match as Navratilova was unable to hold serve again. The mood changed as dramatically as the weather has these past few days.

It was like trying to stop a runaway train. Graf won nine games in a row, taking the second set, building a 3-0 lead in the final one. Navratilova did not have any answers. Graf was playing in that hurry-up no-nonsense manner of hers, and when Navratilova paused to wipe a few raindrops from her glasses, the crowd booed, thinking she was stalling. “I was so angry,” she said. “I wasn’t stalling, I was trying to see.”

Navratilova broke Graf in the fourth game, giving her a glimmer of hope, but then it rained and any momentum disappeared. “I saw her in the locker room and she was so down,” Graf said. “I thought, ‘If she’s going to play like she looks, she can’t win.’ “

Sure enough, when play resumed after a 44-minute delay, Graf broke Navratilova again, moving around the court as if she were on springs. She held serve and then broke Navratilova to close out the match, aided by two double faults. At match point, she whipped a backhand return winner that clipped the net as it went past Navratilova.

“Steffi is a super player and a nice human being,” Navratilova said. “If she can keep winning, great. It’s possible I can win Wimbledon again, I would love to win it one more time. But you can’t be greedy. Eight ain’t so bad, you know.”

Bringing Up Baby

By Peter Graf with Cindy Schmerler, World Tennis Magazine, May 1988

I knew my daughter Steffi was going to be a tennis champion when she was not yet 4 years old because her hand was stronger than most 6 or 7 year-old boys and girls. I noticed this when she held up her racket, the handle of which I had cut down so she could play at the club where my wife and I also played.

I was 27 at the time and No. 1 at the club, even though I started playing so late. My wife wasn’t a bad player either and we played a lot. Steffi loved to watch us. Most of the boys and girls went to the wall with a small racket and Steffi wanted to go too. I said, “Please Steffi, let it go. I will show you the right way.”

I was surprised to see that Steffi could hold the racket head up, even at 3 years and 9 months old. I told her to make a small bow and meet the ball in front of her; she could do that too. Every evening when I came home Steffi would be waiting at the door with her racket in her hand. If I said, “Oh, Steffi, I am tired,” she would say, “Oh, please Papa, just a little, O.K?”

I have to admit, this was not tennis back then. Everyone says Steffi started playing tennis when she was 4, but you can’t do that. We only played for four, five, or six minutes a day. Six months later, maybe it was 10 or 12 minutes, but it was always for fun and only as long as she wanted to play.

One thing we did during that time was gamble. We put a string between two chairs in the living room. I’d say, “O.K, now if you hit the ball over the net 10 or 15 times, you get Pepsis.” I would challenge her by saying, “I don’t believe you can do it.” But she always did.

We started playing in the living room, but pretty soon Steffi was hitting so hard she was breaking the lights on the chandelier. My wife had to buy more and more lights and she was getting mad. I had to say, “Steffi, one more light … you hit too hard.” Finally, I sold my billiards table in the playroom downstairs and we started playing there.

Even at that early age Steffi was very competitive. She wanted so badly to get the ball over 15 times. Then she would say, “Papa, if I hit 20 times …. ?” and I said, “if you hit the ball 20 times over we make a party.” And she did, so we had a big party with ice cream and strawberries and – most importantly – music. Steffi loves music.
I always knew Steffi had special talent. I had taught 6- to 8-year-old players, and Steffi was different. She always had her eyes on the ball. Nothing distracted her. Even if the phone rang, she never looked away. You think she has great concentration now; she was always that way.

The strength in her hand was also important. I made a video of her swinging at 5 years old and later saw a film of Tracy Austin at the same age. I noticed that Tracy couldn’t hold the racket the way Steffi could. Tracy was
a smaller girl, but Steffi was just much stronger.

But the most important thing was that Steffi always had fun with tennis. I saw so many players whose parents put pressure on them. They would say, “You have to play tennis today.” With Steffi you never had to say that. With her, I would say, “O.K, I think we can play today,” and then she was always at the court earlier than the time we were scheduled to play.

I have always been Steffi’s coach. Now other people, like Pavel Slozil, travel and hit with her, but I know her game best. I taught her the technical skills and still work with her all the time.

The good thing about Steffi is that she likes to learn. Now she’s not so easy to teach because she knows the game. She is stubborn and very critical of herself. After she misses a shot, she knows what she did wrong and doesn’t want to hear it from someone else. Tennis is a very individual sport and everyone who plays is an individual. That’s why it’s hard to teach someone to play in a group. In West Germany, tennis is organized. We have one and a half or two million organized players. In Leimen, where Boris Becker practiced (and Steffi did too sometimes), there were about 14 good players and three courts in the hall. There were four boys and girls on each court and it was impossible to teach individually.

So when Steffi was 8 I sold my car company and built a tennis hall near our home. That way I could work with Steffi individually. That was very important. We would work together for one or two hours every day and I knew exactly what was good for her and what wasn’t.

Not everyone liked that. A lot of people had an idea of how Steffi should play. At this time, Bjorn Borg was in, so the coaches in Leimen told me that Steffi should play with more topspin. I said that Steffi couldn’t do this because she didn’t have the strength. There was one boy who hit the ball with a great deal of topspin on the forehand, but the ball always landed in front of the serviceline. Steffi hit the ball to the baseline.
So I finally said, “If you think his way is right, let them play a match.”

Steffi won two sets in about 20 minutes. The point here is that every player is an individual. Steffi was not a topspin player so it was not right for her to change her game to suit someone else. Borg is an individual, and so is Steffi.

About six months later, Manuel Orantes won the 1976 Masters using a slice backhand; all of a sudden the coaches were telling us that Steffi must learn to hit a slice backhand. I felt the coaches were saying that to be a champion all players had to do the same thing. But I decided to make my own way with Steffi. She had to play the way she wanted to play with the shots she had in her head. So there were some people who were against us, but Steffi became the European champion at 11, 12 and 13 years old. And instead of playing topspin, she hit a normal, very fast ball; it worked for her.

What I learned from this is that sometimes you have to fight for things. That is not always my mentality, but I wanted to take all the pressure off Steffi and put it on my small – or not so small – shoulders. It was very important that I went my own way at this time and that is why I didn’t have so many friends in tennis. We went the way that was right for Steffi and maybe not right for 99.9 percent of the other players.

I know that people have compared me with Roland Jaeger, but I am not Mr. Jaeger. I don’t even know him, but he did say hello to me once at the Orange Bowl when Steffi was 13. At that time I knew my image was not so good. I hope that has changed, but if you have to make your own way, you can’t always worry about your image. I have also learned a lot since we first came to the United States that year. It was never my way to make big problems for others, but I know in the beginning I made some mistakes. But not everything was my fault.

Once in Berlin, when Steffi was 14, she was asked at a press conference if she would like to play Federation Cup for West Germany. She was only No. 5 in the country at the time, but she said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” Well, one man thought she meant she didn’t want to play and kept asking her why not. I came into the room at this time and said, “Now it’s done, finish please. It’s unbelievable what you are doing to my daughter.” And there were about 40 or 50 people there and they all said to me, “Why did you do such a stupid thing?” But Steffi didn’t know to just say, “If I’m invited, I’ll play,” and end it, so I had to help her. These things gave me an early reputation. But I think that is changing now and people realize that the only person I always cared about was Steffi.
Family support is one of the most important qualities in developing a champion. Steffi has a brother, Michael, who is now 16 years old and also likes sports, but not anything special. He likes skiing, is a very good track and field runner, likes basketball and dancing, and is not a bad tennis player. And he’s good in school. He will probably become a doctor.

Steffi and Michael are very close. Whenever Steffi calls home, the first thing she asks is, “What is Michael doing?” And that is very important. She likes her family and the support we give her. She also knows that I love my son the same as Steffi. Sometimes she says, “Oh, Michael has an unbelievable life because he can do everything.” But she also knows how lucky she is and what we have done for her.
The day before Steffi left to go to the States after her holiday at the beginning of the year, we had a big party for her at a disco and it was unbelievable. Steffi was absolutely crazy. There were so many friends there, boys and girls, and Steffi danced so much. Off-court, she is a normal girl and much nicer than people can see on-court.

But she also knows exactly what she wants. She knows what type of boy she likes and what kind of person she wants to be. She has a lot of personality that the other tennis players are just now starting to see. People are
beginning to understand that the way Steffi is on-court – she looks so strong – has nothing to do with herself. She only concentrates on the match. After that, she is absolutely normal, laughing and singing and dancing like other girls her age.

But in tennis, Steffi goes her own way. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t make a champion. You can help, but a champion makes herself.

By Steeve Goldstein, from “World Tennis” – May, 1988

“Would you like tea?” asks Andrei Chesnokov‘s mother with a giggle and a friendly smile. “Or maybe you’d like something stronger?” The visitor considers her request, knowing that tea is not a simple thing when offered in a Soviet household. Tea is fine, he says, and within moments the table is groaning under a burden of bread, caviar, fish, meat, sweet piroshki, pickles and a steaming silver samovar filled with tea.

Across the table, Andrei Chesnokov sits grinning. He has seen it all before. Chesnokov, the prodigal tennis-playing son, is home in Moscow for a change and Valentina Nikolaevna, his vivacious, plump, russet-haired mother, is spoiling “Andrewshka” for all he’s worth; and, of course, his friends.
Completing the foursome is Chesnokov’s girlfriend Natalia Bykova, a member of the Soviet women’s team who’s ranked No. 134 in the world.

Today is a day for friends and celebrations at the modest three-room Chesnokov apartment on Academic Chelomaya Street in the south-west section of the Soviet capital. In a few hours, the tall, Nick Nolteish Chesnokov will go off to a restaurant for another party where friends will wish him luck in his endeavors for the year. Big things are expected of the world’s No. 28 player.
In a few days, it’s back to the courts. Chesnokov usually practices during the winter at the Chaika (Seagull) sports center in the heart of Moscow, a complex with two indoor courts, two outdoor courts and a heated swimming pool. There he is joined by Soviet No. 2 Alexander Volkov (No. 91 in the world), who has come to Moscow from his hometown of Kaliningrad to practice prior to leaving the Soviet Union and joining the Nabisco Grand Prix tour. Together they comprise the best Soviet tennis duo in years, potentially the best ever. Yet, life for them in the Soviet Union is not really comparable to that of the best players in other countries. Life is simple and unglamorous, and tennis fame makes little difference. Socialism is for sportsmen too.

More than 700 miles away, in the city of Minsk, the capital of the Belorussian Republic, Natalia Zvereva, ranked fourteenth in the world, is bashing forehands across the net in the cavernous, hump-backed Palace of Tennis, a half-built tennis complex that is, nevertheless, one of the best in the Soviet Union.
“Molodets,” yells Olga Morozova, meaning “excellent one.” She watches eagerly as the long-legged brunette moves to the ball, pounding it in her best Steffi Graf imitation. Morozova must be thinking, Was it only two years ago that I thought Zvereva might not be strong enough? As coach of the women’s national tennis team, Morozova is paid to make such judgments.
On another court, Natalia Medvedeva, ranked No. 200, is hitting with Larisa Savchenko, No. 17. Morozova has to be careful; when she says “Natasha,” five heads swing in her direction. Only 9 of her 14 charges on the women’s national team are not nicknamed Natasha.

The session in Minsk, an ugly city rebuilt on the ruins of World War II devastation, is one of several sbors (gatherings) that Morozova runs each year for the women’s team. These camps usually last two weeks, including daily morning and afternoon practice sessions preceded by vigorous calisthenics. When the women aren’t on-court, Morozova has them playing indoor soccer or basketball, anything to increase fitness, have fun, and create a feeling of camaraderie.
Zvereva is an established star, while Medvedeva is one of the team’s most exciting prospects. She lives in Kiev and is finishing secondary school. She is coached by her mother, Svetlana, who was one of the best tennis players in the Ukraine. Medvedeva’s brother Andrei, 13, is a member of the Soviet junior team and is her most reliable sparring partner.
The normally effervescent Morozova grows contemplative as she watches Savchenko and Viktoria Milvidskaia, No. 260 right now, but highly touted for the future, hit on the green Bolltex carpet. “If I had Savchenko’s body and Vika’s head I could have won the Grand Slam – twice,” Morozova says. Although she is one of the most famous athletes in the Soviet Union, the 1974 Wimbledon finalist sometimes permits herself to indulge in what-might-have been reveries, but mostly she concentrates on what might be in this, the heyday of Soviet tennis.

The Russians are coming. To the Rolex Orange Bowl. To the French Open. To Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. To the Nabisco Grand Prix and Virginia Slims circuits. They are coming in greater numbers, with more sophisticated skills and better equipment than ever before. They are the progeny of the first tennis renaissance in the Soviet Union since the seventies successes of Morozova and ’73 Wimbledon runner-up Alex Metreveli.
The reason is simple: With its return as a medal sport to Olympic competition after an absence of 64 years, tennis has been elevated in the complicated sports hierarchy of the country. In the Soviet Union the Olympics mean everything. All that glitters is gold, silver and bronze. That is what the Soviets care about most and if there’s a chance to win an Olympic medal, then tennis takes priority with Goskomsport, the state sports committee. But that’s a big “if.”

“If we win medals, we will get everything,” says Morozova. For now, the Soviets are building new courts and renovating others to compensate for a woeful shortage throughout the country. Plans are under way for a national tennis center in Jurmala, a Baltic seaside resort near the Latvian capital of Riga. Because they are fed up with the inferior balls produced by the Red Triangle factory in Leningrad, the Soviets have purchased better ball-making equipment, and have also been producing rackets with equipment bought from Kneissl. There are currently about 200,000 tennis players in the Soviet Union, not many in a country of 290 million people, but more than double the number before tennis went Olympic. For boys, tennis doesn’t begin to approach the popularity of hockey and soccer, but it closely rivals gymnastics and figure skating as a favorite for young girls. Wimbledon has been broadcast four or five hours a day on Soviet television the last two years. Sovetsky Sport, the national sports daily, has increased its coverage of tennis, too.

Among the crop of new, exciting players is Medvedeva, strong and tall with a classic athletic physique, Yelena Brukhovets and Natalia Biletskaya, both barely 16. Among the men, 17-year-old Andrei Cherkasov is a comer and the laconic Volkov is finally showing signs of doing some of the things predicted of him as a talented junior. Leila Meskhi, ranked No. 42, is continuing the tradition of good Georgian players and is probably the best female player to come out of that republic. Her coach and fellow Georgian, Timur Kakulia, should know. A former Davis Cup teammate of Metreveli’s, Kakulia once reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon and is considered one of the country’s all-time best.

Metreveli, by the way, returned to his native Georgia to work in the republic’s sports ministry. Insiders say that powers in the tennis federation at that time didn’t want Metreveli to usurp their authority, and he was never invited to take an active role. The former star then worked as a journalist for the Georgian news agency. Now, friends say, Metreveli is planning to open a tennis “cooperative” club in his native Tbilisi.
The tennis federation did not make the same mistake twice, however. In 1982 Morozova was named coach of the women’s national team. Yet Morozova has refused to bow to sexist images; extremely energetic, Morozova, 39, is the Soviet link with the international world.
“Because I have a name and success in the past, sometimes it helps me get respect,” she says one day while relaxing in her large (by Soviet standards), nicely decorated flat on Ryleyeva Street (Olympic figure skating star Irina Rodnina is a neighbor), within walking distance of the Chaika facility. “But also they are jealous. Some men resent my success. I’m trying to have a system,” she continues. “But it is very difficult. It’s a very individual sport and when you have a team you have to treat everyone individually. I have to have the same idea as the people who first coached them. But I’m working for the big result.”

According to most “knowledgeable” sources emanating from the West, Soviet athletes are either genetically engineered or taken directly from the cradle to sports institutes where they receive rigorous training and frequent injections of hormones and steroids. The athletes and their teams are accorded the reddest of red-carpet treatment and live in dwellings palatial by Soviet standards. Soviet tennis players are the first to laugh at this characterization. If only it were true, especially the housing part, they say.

Under the Soviet system, a tennis player who shows promise is encouraged to attend a special sports clinic after school where he or she comes under the guidance of a regular coach. Eventually, he’s invited to join one of the sports clubs that exist in every city. These clubs bear impressive names like Dynamo, Spartak or Locomotiv, or the famous Central Red Army Club. The clubs have special coaches and plentiful facilities for use by the membership, who pay a nominal fee.

Morozova, who grew up with the Dynamo club, was shaped there by a coach named Nina Teplikova. Childless herself, Teplikova’s young students were her family and she developed a very personal relationship with them. Morozova, who started playing after borrowing a neighbor’s racket and hitting balls against a garage, joined Dynamo when she was 11. Morozova’s daughter Katya, 9, definitely has the right genes. She is already a member at Spartak, where her father, Viktor Rubanov, is a coach.
The clubs run tournaments and from there the players have a chance to join the national team. Morozova won’t take a player until she is 13 or 14, but will make a scouting trip to see talent. There are also special sports boarding schools, where kids live away from home and practice constantly.
“I’m against special schools,” Morozova says firmly. “You should live at home and get that human warmth so it’s not tennis all the time.”
If Morozova is interested in recruiting a young player for her team, she calls the player’s parents and talks to them. It was easy to phone Medvedeva’s mother in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and obtain permission, because Svetlana Medvedeva coaches her daughter. In Brukhovets’ case, Morozova called her coach first; then her mother came to Moscow from their home in Odessa to talk with Morozova.
“I propose the kind of tournaments she should play and then, if she has good results, she can go on to satellite and junior events in other countries,” Morozova says. “No one has said no.”
It becomes the task of the coach and parent to work out a program of study for the child at school. If Morozova is needed, she will speak to school officials as well.
Home life is sporadic. Some of the players travel quite a bit and have to keep up with their studies on the road. At home, they have daily practice sessions. Zvereva wants to be the best at everything, so she stays up late
even on tour to work on her studies. Medvedeva, on the other hand, just cares about getting by.

Former player and current television commentator Anna Dmitrieva is critical of the Soviet system, saying that children are often selected for special attention at their schools at the premature age of 6 or 7. “This is much too early,” she says. “Usually, it is only the parents who are interested at that time, while the children themselves don’t really get interested until they are 9 or 10. Only about two percent of all children are picked to get coaching, so many children who mature later fall through the system.
“We have a big country,” adds Dmitrieva. “in Czechoslovakia, nothing falls through.”

Andrei Chesnokov‘s parents divorced when he was 3, so Andrei stayed with his mother, an engineer. While still in grammar school, Chesnokov’s class was visited by a tennis coach. He was the first sportsman to come to the school, and the impressionable youngster thought tennis would be a good way to stop his mother from nagging him to go outside and play.
When Chesnokov was 8, his tennis class at school was visited by a local tennis coach named Tatiana Naumko, who picked out the best and took them to nearby Sokolniki Park to play. Naumko found an exceptional prospect in a lanky boy with a laconic manner. By the time Chesnokov was 9 he had won the winter championship in Moscow. At age 10, he went to a “young pioneer” summer camp and idolized a kid four years older who played tennis; that cemented his interest in the game.
Chesnokov progressed steadily and came to a crossroads after winning the national championship at 14. Authorities wanted to take him away from Naumko and put him under male supervision. “We have a lot of women tennis coaches who work with children,” Naumko says. “I think men and women have different qualities and add to each other.”
Yet officials in Soviet tennis circles felt Naumko should give way to a man; that once a certain skill level had been achieved by a male player his coaching should be strictly male. Naumko and Chesnokov stayed firm on their alliance and the tennis federation was forced to relent. Says Chesnokov: “I didn’t think of getting someone else.”
Naumko doesn’t always travel abroad with Chesnokov. That responsibility is shared by different coaches, among them Naumko’s husband and Shamil Tarpischev, coach of the men’s national team. When Chesnokov is in Moscow, he practices nearly every day with Naumko.

Andrei Cherkasov, 17, another bright star on the Soviet horizon, also has a female coach, Natalia Rogova. The 1987 European junior champion, he also was a finalist in the junior U.S. Open and Orange Bowl. Now he is a member of the Soviet Davis Cup team. What makes Cherkasov’s rise even more remarkable is that he comes from the city of Ufa in the Urals, a place with no tennis tradition, where the summers are short and the winters severe. Rogova, who moved to Ufa from Kishinev, discovered Cherkasov and became not only his coach but also – in true Soviet tradition – a second mother.

Why the predominance of women coaches for young boys? Dmitrieva says that there are few men willing to work with children at a beginner’s level. Thus, a strong bond is formed between female coach and male student at an early age. Furthermore, she believes there is no reason to switch to a male coach as the player gets older – as long as he is happy.
“What we really need for our top players is coaching at a very high level,” she says. “But we don’t have any men who are that good, that expert. If we speak of our problems in tennis, this is our biggest problem. Practically speaking, we don’t have a (male) coach who can lead a player to the top.”

Timur Kakulia, who Dmitrieva thinks will one day be a very good men’s coach, acknowledges that coaching is a big problem. “I’m using books by Americans and other top players to teach my kids how to play tennis,” he explains.
Alexander Volkov, who shocked everyone this year by qualifying and then reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon before losing to Anders Jarryd, is now coached by Valeri Shklar. But his first coach was Shklar’s wife, who was a better player than her husband. Now Volkov has become a solid Soviet No. 2 behind Chesnokov. Late in maturing – some Soviet critics used to say he seemed to fall asleep on his feet – Volkov appears to have finally gotten his wake-up call.
Born and raised in Kaliningrad, a western Soviet city on the Baltic Sea near the Polish border, Volkov started to play when he was 10 purely out of curiosity. Though a natural right-hander, Volkov broke his right hand as a boy and began playing left-handed. Until two years ago, he hit two-handed off both wings, a la Gene Mayer.
When at home, Volkov practices with Shklar at the Dynamo club. But he often comes to Moscow to practice, staying either at the Hotel Sport, not far from the Chesnokov home, or at the Chaika sports center hotel, one floor below the swimming pool.

Interviewing Volkov at the “hotel” was a shock. The entrance was little more than a hole in the wall, the rooms were small and cramped, and the place reeked of sweat and grime. It was little more than a youth hostel, a far cry from a sumptuous facility like Van der Meer’s or Bollettieri’s. Perhaps the Olympics and the thought of succeeding in a suddenly reputable sport awakened Volkov’s interest. “It is more attractive now,” he admits. “It’s more popular and there are more possibilities due to it being an Olympic sport. When young people played before they didn’t see any prospects.”

Families sometimes play an important role in the development of Soviet tennis stars, but a majority of players don’t have tennis parents. Medvedeva and Zvereva grew up in tennis families with parents as coaches; so did a new face on the team, Anna Mirza, 17, whose father coached in Moscow. Bykova’s parents were both good players.
Marat Nikolayevich Zverev is a dead ringer for John Updike, but Morozova looks at him and sees a closer resemblance to Peter Graf or Roland Jaeger. “He is my biggest headache in coaching,” says Morozova, describing the tension created when a coach tries to deal with a player whose parent is also a coach, and, therefore, always on the scene. Yes, even in the Soviet Union.
Though Morozova is in charge of the two-week camps, she almost always invites the coaches of some of the players. At the camp in Minsk this group includes Kakulia, who coaches Meskhi; Anatoly Volkov, who has three
Moscow-based players (Svetlana Parkhomenko, ranked No. 117, Bykova and Eugenia Maniukova, No. 291); Anatoly Teterin, who found Savchenko in Lvov; and Sergei Zhitsky, Biletskaya’s coach.
Only one really gets in Morozova’s way – Zverev. Zvereva is impatient and somewhat bored during the camp. She bristles when Morozova attempts to correct mistakes. “I’m used to playing with my coach,” she explains later, referring to her father, who coaches the Central Red Army Club. “He understands my game.”
Zvereva may not appreciate the differences in Soviet tennis since Morozova’s salad days. At that time there was no women’s national coach, and no camps. Now there is more money to support the team and a more organized approach to learning the game and perfecting skills. “The girls now have a more professional approach to practice and work on the court,” says Morozova.

On another level, there are potential problems for Soviet players and the federation that have nothing to do with slice backhands or kick serves.
In the age of glasnost, the fever of “grab-most” has finally infected top-ranked Soviet players. The players’ expenses are covered by the federation, which also doles out a $25 per diem to players on tour. Members of the national team receive what amounts to a monthly salary, ranging from about 150 rubles per month up to 250 for such stars as Zvereva and Chesnokov (about $250 to $430). They also receive bonuses for Davis Cup competition.
The main bone of contention, of course, is that the prize money goes to the federation. Morozova estimates that Savchenko has put more than $200,000 in Soviet coffers and Parkhomenko at least half that. (The two form a top-rated doubles team that last year upset Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.) Zvereva has begun what may be the most profitable longterm fund-raising for the federation with a contribution of about $60,000 in 1987. “We have given the federation more than they have given us,” says Morozova bluntly.

Shortly after losing the final of the New Zealand Open in January, Chesnokov aired views that he has held privately for some time. “I don’t like playing for $25 a day, for sure,” he told reporters. “If I win the U.S. Open, I get just as much as if I lose in the first round. I would like to keep some of the money, everyone would like to get some money, but we can’t,” he added. “Every year we have this problem, butthey say, ‘Maybe next year.’ It’s always next year.”
Next year may have finally arrived, especially with Zvereva putting on the pressure. No Soviet official wants to preside over a high-level sports defection. “I really want a percentage of the prize money,” says Zvereva.
“I’m just 16 but I understand what it means when I’m finished playing tennis. How can I live and work?”
The Soviet tennis federation is all too aware of the problem. With many institutions subject to Mikhail Gorbachev’s sweeping economic reform, it’s likely that the state sports committee may soon have more control over its own purse strings.
“It is really a problem,” admits Victor N. Yanchuk, head of the Soviet tennis federation. “We will come closer to deciding this problem after the Olympics. But it’s unfair for someone to say he wants to keep all the money himself, after not spending a ruble for training, travel or coaching before he became a star.”
Star. Not a word that is thrown around lightly in the Soviet Union. Not a word even heard in the households of Andrei Chesnokov or Natasha Zvereva, but a word that could soon be applied to them or one of their teammates.
The Russians are coming indeed. A tennis revolution has begun in earnest.

Natasha Zvereva, Steffi Graf

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.

Adds Davenport,

‘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.

Natasha Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez

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.’