By Claude England, Maryland Match Point
At first I thought it must have been the strong capuccino I had enjoyed after ou last dinner in Melbourne that was keeping me so wide awake, but as the minutes continued to tick by, I came to realize it as the sheer excitement of the past five days at the Australian Open that was still tingling through my body.
So many talented players, great matches, and the magnificent state-of-the-art Australian Open facility. Where to begin?
Mark Philippoussis opened up the center court action with a straight victory over Nicolas Kiefer, who would have, at that time, thought he would go on to upset Pete Sampras in straight sets, only to be thrashed in the following round by fellow Australian Mark Woodforde.
Next it was defending champion Andre Agassi who basically limped onto center court after having the misfortune of hurting a tendon in his knee during a fall on his apartment steps. Andre, wearing a pathetic bandage, somehow won this match against Argentine qualifier Gaston Etlis, who at one point was serving for the match, and at another time was within two points of perhaps the upset of the decade. It was a sad sight from both ends of the court. Etlis played brilliant tennis, showing no mercy for Andre’s inability to move around the court, hitting precision drop shots that the defending champion, instead of racing towards, could only stand and watch. But when it came to winning those final points, Etlis became even more creative in finding ways not to win, and Andre hobbled to a 6-3 in the fifth victory.
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.
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.’