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.’

A look at the 5 warmup tournaments for Wimbledon: who is playing where and when.

Aegon Classic, Birmingham 10-16 June

Previous winners include Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King – who was Birmingham’s inaugural champion in 1982 and collected the last of her 67 Open Era singles titles here in 1983 – and more recently, Jelena Jankovic, Li Na and Maria Sharapova, who in 2004 became the only player to capture Birmingham and Wimbledon in the same year.

Prize Money: $235,000
Defending Champ: Melanie Oudin
Official site
Who is playing: Kirsten Flipkens, Laura Robson, Heather Watson, Sorana Cirstea, Sabine Lisicki

Aegon Championships, Queens 10-16 June

Andy Murray makes his comeback from the back injury that forced him to miss Roland Garros. The Scot, who reached the Wimbledon final in 2012 (l. to Federer), won the Queen’s title in 2009 (d. Blake) and 2011 (d. Tsonga).
Since its inception in 1979, there have been six different players to complete the Queen’s Club-Wimbledon title double in the same year, including John McEnroe (81, 84), Jimmy Connors (82), Boris Becker (85), Pete Sampras (95, 99), Lleyton Hewitt (2002) and Rafael Nadal (2008).

Prize Money: € 683,665
Defending Champ: Marin Cilic
Official site
Who is playing: Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic

Andy Murray

Check out our Queen’s 2011 recap: part 1, part 2

Gerry Weber Open, Halle 10-16 June

German veteran Tommy Haas beat Roger Federer in Halle last year to capture his 13th career title, his first since 2009. Both eliminated in the Roland Garros quarter-finals, Federer and Haas will compete in Halle again this year, and they also are going to pair up in doubles together.

Prize Money: € 683,665
Defending Champ: Tommy Haas
Official site
Who is playing: Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Janko Tipsarevic, Milos Raonic, Tommy Haas, Kei Nishikori

Read Mauro’s report from Halle last year on his meeting with Stefan Edberg

Topshelf Open, s-Hertogenbosch 16-22 June

Launched as an ATP tournament in 1990, it became a joint event in 1996. Champions include Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Mary Pierce, Justine Henin – who won the last of her 43 titles here in 2010 -, Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Rafter and Richard Gasquet.

WTA:
Prize Money: $235,000
Defending Champ: Nadia Petrova
Who is playing: Roberta Vinci, Dominika Cibulkova, Kirsten Flipkens, Kiki Bertens, Francesca Schiavone

ATP:
Prize Money: € 410,200
Defending Champ: David Ferrer
Official site
Who is playing: David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka, John Isner, Jérémy Chardy, Benoit Paire

Aegon International, Eastbourne 17-22 June

Formerly the International Women’s Open, Britain’s biggest international women’s event joined forces with the ATP World Tour to host a combined men’s and women’s tournament at Devonshire Park. In past years the men’s ATP World Tour event had been played in Nottingham.
Sunday June 16 will feature a host of legends competing in a Father’s Day tussle as former British No.1 Greg Rusedski faces off with Mark Philippoussis before they team up with former world No.1 Lindsay Davenport and two-time Wimbledon Doubles Champion Rennae Stubbs in a mixed doubles match.

WTA:
Prize money: $690,000
Defending champ: Tamira Paszek
Who is playing: Agnieszka Radwanska, Sara Errani, Li Na, Angelique Kerber, Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova

ATP:
Prize money: € 526,060
Defending champ: Andy Roddick
Official site
Who is playing: Gilles Simon, Juan Monaco, Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini, Bernard Tomic