A few weeks after her pro debut, the Capriati mania keeps going on:

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the month of April all the indoor tournaments are over. The marking time after the Australian Open is finished. The game moves to the clay courts, and everyone begins looking ahead to the next Grand Slam, the French Open.

Clay has always been thought as the surface of Europeans and South Americans. The red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris, and the Foro Italico, in Rome, are part of the sport’s heritage, and players from the Continent and from South America do grow up on, and for the most part, do most of their playing stuff.

[…] Since the Open left Forest Hills for the hard courts of Flushing Meadow in 1978, there has been no great clay-court tournament in the United States. The US Clay Court Championships, once played in Indianapolis, died there in the mid 1980s when the courts were paved (to induce the men to play there before the US Open). The USTA still runs a US Clay Court Championships in May, but very few players ranked in the top one hundred ever show up.

The women still have Hilton Head, though. For the past eighteen years, they have played the Family Circle Cup at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, South Carolina. It represents the opening of the clay-court season for the women and has the feel of a big tournament, though it still retains the charm of a small one. The stadium at the Sea Pines Racquet Club seats about five thousand people. It is surrounded by soaring South Carolina pines which give the place a feeling of isolation. The real world seems much farther away than just across a bridge that leads to the honky-tonk towns and paper mills of the South Carolina and Georgia marsh country.

The field for this tournament is always strong. The prize money is as high as a non-Grand Slam women’s tournament (other than the Lipton) can be: $500,000 meaning that, under Women’s Tennis association rules, at least one of the top two-, two of the top four-, and four of the top eight-ranked players must be entered. In 1990, Navratilova was there, Arantxa Sanchez was there, Zina Garrison was there, and so was Natalia Zvereva. But they were not the stars of this week.

Jennifer Capriati was at Hilton Head, courtesy of Gerry Smith’s string-pulling. The only people pulling harder for her to make it to the weekend than Smith were the ones from NBC. For them a Navratilova-Capriati final would be straight out of Fantasy Island. Not only would they have a classic princess-grand dame matchup, they would have it with the grand dame’s pal and the princess’ hero/mentor – Christine Marie Evert herself – making her network debut in the commentary booth.[…]

And so it was that The Queen came to Hilton Head with the network hoping that The Kid would come through. She did – with flying colors. Still unseeded because she didn’t yet have a ranking, Capriati had to play Sanchez in the third round. No problem: 6-1 6-1. In the quarters, Capriati struggled a little against Helen Kelesi, but roared back to win. Now NBC and Gerry Smith had part of their wish – Capriati had made it to Saturday’s telecast. She would play Zvereva in one semifinal. Navratilova would play a lanky young Czech named Regina Rajchrtova, a quarterfinal over Garrison.

Naturally, Capriati-Zvereva would be the Saturday TV match. To ensure that the court would be clear for The Princess when NBC came on the air at 2 pm, the other semifinal was scheduled for 11:30. This did not exactly please Navratilova. She didn’t relish the role of second fiddle, so she took her sweet time getting ready to go out and play. It was almost 11:50 before the match – which she won in a romp – actually began.

Navratilova may not have been thrilled with all the Capriati mania, but she understood it.

“She’s a fresh face, the new kid on the block, everybody loves her,” she said. “I understand that. It’s amazing how young she is, though. I had been on tour three years before she was born.”

Navratilova was in the final. And after she destroyed Zvereva, so was Capriati, who by now was joyiding though the whole thing. She had a crew fom HBO (which had reportedly paid the family well into six figures) dogging her for a documentary; she had a million questions on her friendship with Chris, and she had boys and men making eyes at her. When the HBO producer told her that a twenty-three-year-old had described her as “hot”, Capriati rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God, don’t tell my father.” She also confided to friends that she had dreamed about TV star Johnny Depp and had a serious crush on Stefan Edberg. The Kid was growing up fast.

But she still sounded like a kid when she talked. When someone asked her about giving Zvereva a crucial point – overruling a call that had gone in her favor – she shrugged. “I just wanted to be fair. The ball was good? I should still have done the other points good.”
As for playing Navratilova, well, that was really something.

“I mean, it shows I’m up there with the great players, I guess,” she said. “I mean, I always watched her play, and now I’ll be out there on the court with her. To be out there with her will be great, you know, she’s really a lege.”

Sunday was something straight out of a fairy tale: gorgeous and sunny, the little stadium sparkling, with the trees rustling in the spring breeze. Andy Mill admitted that the Capriati-Navratilova matchup made his wife a little nervous.

“I told Chrissie she shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the situation,” he said. “She and Martina are certainly friends, but she’s closer to Jennifer. One is a friend, the other is a protégée.”

[…]Evert turned thirty-five in December – three months and eight days before Capriati hit fourteen. Now she sat in the TV booth with Dick Enberg as Capriati raced on court two steps ahead of Navratilova – “I wanted to get my lucky chair,” she said – while Navratilova was nearly knocked over by the NBC cameraman pursuing the teenager. She was not amused.

That was Martina’s last bad moment of the day, though. She was still The Lege and played near-perfect tennis to beat The Kid 6-2 6-4 in seventy-five minutes. Capriati hardly seemed bothered by it all. During the awards ceremony she thanked just about everyone on the planet, and when Bud Collins, the master of ceremonies, started to pull the microphone back, thinking she was finished, Capriati grabbed it back. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished.”
Collins, who knows a star when he sees one, dutifully handed the mike over. Navratilova was thrilled to win – “God, it was nerve-wracking!” she said – and Capriati was thrilled to be Capriati. NBC got the highest rating it had ever gotten on the Family Circle Cup, and a higher rating than it would get on the Wimbledon final. Evert’s reviews weren’t great, but they weren’t bad. Gerry Smith couldn’t stop grinning. And why not?

The Kid had come through like … well … like a Lege.

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.’

Enjoy some great pictures from the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, where Andrea Petkovic captured her third career title:

Andrea Petkovic

After disappointing results at Indian Wells (first-round loss to Alize Cornet) and Miami (second-round loss to Camila Giorgi), Petkovic defeated Jana Cepelova 7-5 6-2 in the final of the Family Circle Cup, to capture her third career title.

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic

Photo credit: mrenzaero

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jalena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic

Photo credit: mrenzaero