By Cindy Schmerler, May 1986, World Tennis Magazine
For one so young, Steffi Graf lived the life of a much older person. At 16, she has traveled the world, collecting souvenir miniature bottles on several continents, won an Olympic Gold Medal, played arguably the most exciting match at the 1985 U.S. Open (beating Pam Shriver in the quarter-finals in three tiebreaker sets), and has become Germany’s second newest toast of the town, alongside the now-aging hero Boris Becker. She has also cried visibly on court, allowed her father to berate members of the media and tour officials, and acted ungraciously to sponsors and fans.
The picture of Steffi Graf is indeed complex. Away from tennis, Graf is an amiable yet rambunctious teenager who has been seen fleeing her mother’s grasp to run up and down the dirt road of a sleepy Mexican town in search of tiny bottles (“Like the ones you get on airplanes,” she explains) to add to her collection back home in Bruehl, West Germany. Considering she has already won over half a million dollars in prize money, it is a modest hobby.
But on a tennis court, Graf is anything but modest or amiable. In tennis, she no longer has her hand held by her mother, Heidi, but instead is within the grasp of her father, Peter, who has been known to mow down, with icy stares and scathing words, anyone who stands in the way of his daughter’s progress. And although Steffi would probably do fine on her own, because she possesses the tremendous talent and athletic ability now required for success on the women’s tour, her father remains a towering force: Coaching her, guiding her career, and sheltering her from any outside distractions that might interfere with the plan he has devised for his daughter.
It was Peter Graf who introduced tennis to his only daughter, back when Steffi was just a bony-legged toddler. “I don’t really remember when I started,” Steffi says during a rare quiet moment when her father, because he is not in town, cannot monitor the interview. “I know that we played in the living room and also in a big hobby room with billiards and things like this. We put two chairs up and we played over them. A couple of times when I got the ball over the chairs I would get an ice with strawberries.” Steffi’sface brightens and she giggles to herself, obviously remembering her inauspicious beginning. “It was really much fun. But it was always me and my father; my mother wasn’t too much in it.”
There is clearly a strong bond of love among the Grafs. Steffi never travels alone; she is sometimes accompanied by her mother, but lately Heidi has opted to stay home with Steffi’s younger brother Michael, after years of traveling the international junior circuit. So it is Peter who shepherds his daughter around the tennis world.
The two have become a fearsome duo on the women’s tour. Papa Graf has been known to interrupt interviews and silence his daughter if he does not like the way she is responding to a question. He has also accused fans and officials of favoring American players over his daughter. Several times he hasn’t allowed Steffi to attend post-match press conferences and, on one occasion, in Filderstadt, Germany, after Steffi lost in the semi-finals to Pam Shriver, father and daughter stood in the back of the room while Pam was answering questions posed to her. When told that Pam’s interview would be over shortly, Graf said sarcastically, “No, no, Steffi wait, Steffi not good enough as Pam.”
But the most crucial blow came in front of 5,000 spectators, a national television audience, sponsors and tournament officials at the Lynda Carter-Maybelline Classic in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last fall. After losing to Martina Navratilova in the final, Steffi ran off the court instead of waiting through the presentation ceremonies, claiming that she had to catch a plane. With her father shouting “Come, come, come” from outside the court, and Women’s Tennis Association public relations representative Nancy Bolger tugging from the other end, Steffi was finally coerced back onto the court to receive her $14,500 prize-money check, only to run off again before Martina had been awarded her money. The next day, local papers ran the headline, GRAF TAKES 2ND-PLACE CASH, RUNS.
“Steffi is a great girl,” says Bolger, “and I actually like her father. I think he really loves Steffi and is so attached to her that he just flies off the handle.” After one such incident, in which Bolger was the unfortunate recipient of one of Graf’s rages, she returned to her hotel room the next day to find flowers and a note of apology from Peter.
Lee Jackson, the WTA’s tour referee, has seen Peter Graf’s negative side morethan once. “He’s accused us of showing favoritism to the U.S. players,” she says. “He still does whenever Steffi plays a close match and loses. it’s sad, but it’s true.”
“Steffi is a wonderful girl,” Jackson continues. “She’s vivacious. But I just can’t strike some sort of pleasant relationship with the father. He’s got such a chip on his shoulder.”
Two weeks after the Maybelline incident, WTA officials decided that the Grafs were destroying themselves and set out to rectify the situation. Bolger and tour director, Georgina Clark, set up a meeting in Brighton, England, with Steffi and her father in which they explained the need for Steffi to maintain a “positive image” and uphold her responsibility to the game. They further added that the WTA wanted people like Steffi but that she was sending bad signals to the public, media and others. In short, they explained that people wanted to love Steffi, but that she and her father had to give them the chance.
Steffi, like her father, is not easy to get to know. Most of the other women on the tour know her by reputation alone, because she largely keeps to herself, remaining in her insular world rather than taking a chance on hurting her tennis game by befriending competitors. “You’re not really friends with anyone,” she says, “because everyone’s thinking of herself. Everyone wants to win, and to get a relationship is just so hard.” Even during a meaningless-but-fun exhibition week in Loreto, Mexico, Steffi preferred to take her meals in her room with her mother rather than sitting by the pool or joining in a volleyball game with the other participants. She won the event, beating a partied-out Hana Mandlikova in the final.
Getting to the top is a single-minded pursuit for Graf. At 5 feet, 8 inches, she is lanky but strong, with a grip size that rivals many men. Her forehand sends shock waves through every opponent-including Chris Evert Lloyd, who admitted being “intimidated” by Steffi’s forehand in the early stages of their final at the Lipton International Players Championships in February. Moreover, Graf is not afraid to come to the net and put the ball away. She much prefers that style of play to a Gabriela Sabatini-type baseline game, and, most important, she thinks that will prevent her, in the long run, from suffering the burnout syndrome that she is so sick of hearing about.
“Both Jaeger and Austin had two-handed backhands,” says Steffi, waxing philosophical, “and they played on hard courts too much, and that hurts the back. Also, they had the kind of game that it took 30 or 40 times across the net to finish the point. I’m not trying to do anything like that.”
Graf says she has benefited from all the hype that Sabatini received when she first came on the tour. With attention diverted, Steffi was able to slide through, free of pressure until she was ready to make her move. That move, which began at last year’s U.S. Open, has sent her from the top 20 in the world to within the top 5. It also showed the public that not only is Steffi a tenacious fighter, but she, and her father, have a definite aversion to losing. When asked whether Graf had the talent to succeed her, Evert Lloyd said, “I think so. I’ve always said that. Everyone pays attention to others, but she has all the shots – a good first serve, she moves beautifully and mentally she wants it.”
According to Steffi, the Shriver match at the open was “unbelievable,” an adjective she reinforces every time she thinks about it. “it was such an unbelievably close match. Gooodddd. In the first-set tiebreaker she was up
3-0 and serving, and I thought this set was away. And I got it! Then the next set I was up 4-1 in the tiebreaker. And I lost it!” states Steffi, who is so visibly exasperated it’s as if she’s replaying each point in her mind, even months later. “Finally, in the third set I was 4-1 down and I thought, ‘Aw, I let it slip away.’And again I got it. It was just unbelievable.”
After the U.S. Open, Graf became the object of more world-wide attention than she, or her father, were ready to accept. Ever since Steffi was 14 years old she had been bombarded by members of the German press at home, who have been known to call after midnight seeking interviews. But now the world wanted a part of her, and they had no intention of acquiescing.
Peter Graf feels that he had to intervene on Steffi’s behalf. “I know that normally I’m very aggressive,” admits Peter who, before leaving to manage his daughter’s tennis career, served as the manager of a tennis club back in Bruehl, “but it’s not always bad. We have a very good relationship. Most fathers push their children very hard, but I don’t push Steffi because she’s very disciplined. Sometimes I have to say, ‘Stop,’ because she works so hard. I have to tell her to relax.”
“My father is only trying to do the best for me,” adds Steffi. “He’s always saying if I want to stop I should stop. I mean, he’s not trying to get me to play the tennis, he’s giving me the fun to play. He’s doing everything so that I should have fun.”
Phil de Picciotto, Steffi’s agent at Advantage International, sees a fundamental difference between the Grafs and other parent/child relationships in tennis. “The big thing about the Grafs,” explains de Picciotto, “is that Steffi gets along so well with her father. Some parents live through their children, projecting their fantasies on them, and that can cause friction, especially when the child is not as driven as the parent. But Steffi definitely shares her father’s drive and also has the tremendous talent to fulfill it. They really share a common goal and that’s why they get along so well.”
Since Brighton. the Grafs have made a concerted effort to recognize Steffi’s responsibility to the game; not just to walk on the court, play, and collect her prize money, but to promote herself by projecting a positive public image. Bolger notes that Steffi has recently played mild practical jokes on her, and on questioning journalists, and she has even made an effort to join other players in promotional activities for Virginia Slims and the WTA. After losing the Lipton final to Evert Lloyd, she remembered to thank all the sponsors and even remained on court after the presentations to pose with some characters from Walt Disney World. Peter Graf admits that he, too, is “learning much from the Americans … step by step.”
Graf clearly has the talent and the drive to remain at the top of the women’s game for a long time. However, she does have another priority. When asked recently if she had one wish what would it be, Steffi thought a moment, then, rejecting the traditional To-Be-No.-1-in-the-World response, looked up, smiled peacefully and said, “To live all life long … but, with my whole family please.”
By Natalia Bykanova
“No,” she said the first time I called her. “Let bygones be bygones. Everything is nearly forgotten. I live a very peaceful and quiet life.”
Natalia Chmyreva, the most promising young player of the mid 1970’s, was polite but did not want to talk to the press. She hasn’t given an interview since her 25th birthday, when she quit the sport with not half of her talent realized.
She surrendered the third time I called her. “You can come if you need it so badly”, she said at last.
The former Soviet champion lives in Moscow in a three-room apartment together with her parents and a black cat named Musia. She does not attend any tennis tournaments and even the Kremlin Cup men’s tournament held in Moscow each November fails to draw her attention. “I’m overfed with tennis,” said Natasha “Once it made me the happiest person and once it made me the most miserable.”
“Natasha never fitted into our system,” claims Michael Chesalov, her former hitting partner. “Unlike the disciplined Olga Morozova, Natasha could never keep within the bounds.” In 1980, having won all the winter domestic tournaments, Natasha was expelled from the USSR Federation Cup team and dared to ask the sports bosses why.
“What did you do in Mexico last year?” she heard in reply.
“Just won the World Student Games,” answered the champion.
“What did you do there?” The tone of questioning became threatening. Natasha slammed the door. Her disqualification lasted a whole year.
Few people openly supported Chmyreva at that time. They were afraid that they would lose the opportunity to play abroad if they put in a word for an unwanted person.
Chmyreva was not the only Soviet athlete that was punished with disqualification for spending time with western friends at a western disco. At that time, Russians abroad had to live only in groups, so that everybody was easy to spot. Otherwise one had to write a report detailing where and with whom one spent time. Natasha never wrote such reports. She only wrote about her victories and impressions of tournaments she participated in.
To enter the journalism department of Moscow University, one had to produce at least five published pieces to the examining commission. Chmyreva became a student in 1975 and graduated in 1985, spending twice as much time as one needed for the degree because of tennis. These ten years included the rise and fall of the great Soviet tennis hope.
The rise of the young Muscovite was as swift as her game. Her mother, Svetlana Sevastianova, chief and coach of the “Dynamo” tennis club in Moscow, and her father Yuri Chmyrev, track and field coach, dreamed of making a world star out of their daughter from the time she was seven. All the family talks centered around Natasha’s great future.
Svetlana had her own definite approach to her child’s upbringing. “We didn’t want our daughter to have any complexes. She was the best. Why shouldn’t she know it and behave accordingly, like a queen of tennis?”
All this, combined with a lively emotional nature, resulted in some extraordinary gestures from Natasha. “She never chose her words and could thus hurt somebody unconsciously,” remembers a former rival. Chmyreva could carelessly abuse an umpire, or change her shirt without going to the locker room. She was the first to shock conservative Moscow audiences by playing without a bra and it was Chmyreva who introduced to Russia a new on-court hairstyle: she tied up her loose red hair with a band like an American Indian.
“What a controversial person you are,” Ted Tinling used to say to her, and, fittingly, he always used contrasting colours when making Natasha’s dresses: white and black, pink and black, light blue and black. Natasha keeps them all washed, ironed and untouched in a wardrobe.
Chmyreva brandished an athletic game more often seen in men’s tennis and her rare sense of the ball meant that she had the ability to play any stroke. On hard courts it was practically impossible to stop her. A hurricane.
Natasha was used to risk, since she spent most of her childhood climbing trees and jumping from garage roofs. On court, she always rushed forward, enjoying the taste of risky flight that the serve-volley game gave her. The famous theoretician of Soviet tennis, Professor Semen Beltis-Geiman, patronized Natasha. To him, Chmyreva was the personification of what he considered the ideal tennis player.
The professor introduced a new scoring system in domestic junior tournaments in the ‘70’s. For the volley or service winner, the umpire would award two points instead of one. That’s how he tried to stimulate an active, aggressive game. For the two years that this system was functioning, it took Natasha not more than several minutes to beat her opponents.
With the rise of Chris Evert, tennis fashion changed totally. Most of the newcomers imitated her style, but not Chmyreva. At a World Team tennis event in 1977, she beat Evert twice, signaling a wider victory for the adventurous player over the mechanical baseliner. In 1975, a 19-year-old Martina Navratilova did not return to Czechoslovakia after an American tour. Natasha always returned. “My parents and friends live in the Soviet Union, I have too many roots in this country,” Chmyreva replied to those who asked her why she didn’t defect. Natasha had more complexes than she thought.
Chmyreva returned to the USSR after that World Team Tennis event in 1977, knowing fairly well that it was her last time in the United States. Preparing for the 1980 Olympic Games, Soviet rulers forbade Soviet athletes from participating in competitions in which athletes from the Republic of South Africa took part. The USSR were afraid that black African nations would boycott the Games. But as it happened, it was Africa that was fully represented in Moscow. The whole civilized world ignored the 22nd century Olympiad because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pre-Olympic prohibition closed the world arena to Soviet players, as practically every tournament had players from South Africa. At the last tournament played by Soviets abroad, the situation turned dramatic.
“I don’t want to recall it. I felt very much ashamed,” said Natasha. Olga Morozova agreed to talk about it. “It was in Washington in the first round of doubles competition that we had opponents from South Africa. We couldn’t play and had to think of an excuse. So we finally said that Natasha had stomach troubles and skipped the match. In the singles, Natasha had a South African opponent in the second round. She didn’t play. At press conferences we were bombarded with questions and had to lie. Natasha couldn’t stand it and got very nervous because of the necessity to lie all the time.”
When the Iron Curtain slammed down shut behind her, the 18-year-old Chmyreva was ranked 13th in the world. She never got over this step. Having won by that time all the world junior tournaments except the French Open, which she was never sent to, holding two junior Wimbledon crowns and beating half the top 10 world players, she was shot down at the start of her flight and never recovered from the blow. The steeper the flight, the more painful the fall.
Morozova was sceptical when assessing the potential of her former opponent. “Natasha had a lack of self-control and an unbalanced character,” said Olga. “It’s hard for me to say whether she could have achieved more or not. Her character could lead her to failure.”
But the unbalanced Chmyreva at the age of 15 beat the very balanced Morozova right after her great success at Wimbledon ’74, where Olga lost only to Evert in the final. Three years later, Natasha won two matches against Chris, the iron lady of tennis.
Alexander Bogomolov, Natasha’s former mixed partner, thinks differently: “Chmyreva became unbalanced only when she understood she was not allowed to have a perspective of her own, due to the country’s policy. She knew she could achieve more and the impossibility of realizing her emotional and physical talents caused stress.”
Soviet officials never displayed generosity when it came to the money sports stars earned. When, for reaching the semi-final of the Virginia Slims of Chicago in ’77 Natasha earned $5000 prizemoney, sports leaders decided that $280 would be more than enough for her. But it wasn’t the final figure, as they kept back the price of living allowances. As a result she had $180 out of her $5000. Very fair arithmetic, isn’t it? At that time, any talk of prizemoney was considered disgraceful. Russians were all brought up to false morality. Nowadays we reap the fruits of that idiocy. But when you have a great aim to sustain you, even money is something you forget about. “It was all the same to me to eat a hamburger for lunch or a good piece of beef. The only real thing was the victory,” explained Natasha.
Although Chmyreva was very excitable in her play, her emotions never spread beyond the tennis court. At school she was known more as the best student in English class: she still knows the language perfectly. “ It seems to me that sometimes emotional behavior on the court was the result of the great desire of her parents to make her a great player,” said Alexander Bogomolov. “The aim to win by any means was set up before the girl and implemented in her mind too early. Children can’t stand such constant pressure and stresses are inevitable.
At 15, Chmyreva won through the qualifying at Wimbledon but wasn’t included in the main draw of the tournament. Englishmen thought that the All England Championships were not child’s play, even if the child won the right to participate. Times change.
In Melbourne at the 1975 Australian Open, Chmyreva reached the semi-finals and on centre court lost a tough match to Martina Navratilova, who was two years older. Most other tennis stars at the time were of mature age and Natasha looked like an infant prodigy among them.
Natasha first felt herself like a beautiful lady and not just an awkward teen at a White House reception. “In 1976 at the Virginia Slims tournament of the best 16 players,” remembers Natasha, “I was welcomed by President Ford. There were luxurious limousines that took us to the White House and a portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy on the wall. Ford shook me by the hand and asked something about Breshnev.” The Soviet leader preferred hockey to tennis and never invited tennis players to Georgevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
After 1977, Chmyreva trained with all her might so that she would still be in contention for the top after the Moscow games in 1980. In 1978 she won the championships of the USSR, in 1979 the World Student Games. By the time the Moscow games were over, Chmyreva was only 22 and had time again to conquer world tennis. The term of her disqualification had come to an end.
But at that time, Olga Morozova became the head coach of the USSR national team and at the first coaches’ meeting declared: ”I need Chmyreva only as a hitting partner for the young promising players.” So Chmyreva’s career was ended.
Olga dreamed of creating a teenaged national team which would reach the top of world tennis. The dream came true and her players twice played in the final of the Federation Cup. But not Natasha. At that time there was no other way for Soviet tennis players to participate in pro events abroad other than as a member of the Soviet team.
That was the heaviest blow. It took Chmyreva years to overcome the deep stress caused by the failure of all her hopes and the impossibility of self-realization. The former coach of Andrei Chesnokov, Tatiana Naumko, in discussing the way in which the Soviet tennis system stifled individual talents, remarked very correctly, “We’ll never have our own McEnroe in the Soviet Union”. It is a comment pertinent to Chmyreva’s situation. So Natasha lives with no great interest for life, reading, watching videos, chatting with friends and never asking, “Who won Wimbledon this year ?”
They played at Roland Garros a few years ago, they are now back in Paris as coaches, TV commentators or are taking part to the Legends trophy, and with this new trend of great champions turning to coaching, there’s plenty of past champions to see around the grounds at Roland Garros.
6-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker, coach of Novak Djokovic:
Goran Ivanisevic, quarterfinalist in 1990, the year he beat then world No 1 Stefan Edberg in the first round. He now coaches Marin Cilic:
Sergi Bruguera, winner in 1993 and 1994, coach of Richard Gasquet:
Magnus Norman, finalist in 2000, coach of Stanislas Wawrinka:
Sébastien Grosjean, semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2001, coach of Richard Gasquet:
Fabrice Santoro, doubles finalist in 2004, interviews players after their matches:
Iva Majoli, Roland Garros champion in 1997:
Anastasia Myskina, first ever female Russian player to win a Grand Slam title (Roland Garros in 2004):
1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna:
Natasha Zvereva, runner-up in that famous 1988 final against Steffi Graf:
Martinez is now captain of the Spanish Fed Cup team. Tauziat is the former coach of Eugénie Bouchard (below a picture of them two at Roland Garros last year), she now coaches Aleksandra Wozniak:
Gaston Gaudio, surprise winner in 2004:
Albert Costa, winner in 2002. He is currently coaching Feliciano Lopez.
Follow our Roland Garros 2014 coverage and relive some of the most memorable Roland Garros moments. Many pictures and videos to come! If you attend the tournament and want to share your pictures/videos/recaps please contact us.
Roland Garros visitor’s guide:
French Open 2014 VIP packages
How to buy Roland Garros tickets
Get behind the scenes at Roland Garros – part 1
Get behind the scenes at Roland Garros – part 2
Roland Garros 2014: one month to go
Take a seat: court Suzanne Lenglen
Take a seat: court Philippe Chatrier
Today at Roland Garros: Court Philippe Chatrier
Longines Smash Corner
Roland Garros store
Beach tennis and mini tennis at Roland Garros
Fashion and gear:
Chantal Thomass creates a capsule collection for the French Open
Ana Ivanovic adidas dress
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga adidas outfit
Andy Murray adidas outfit
Caroline Wozniacki outfit by Stella McCartney
Maria Kirilenko outfit by Stella McCartney
Kei Nishikori Uniqlo outfit
Novak Djokovic Uniqlo outfit
Victoria Azarenka Nike outfit
Serena Williams Nike dress
Maria Sharapova Nike outfit
Roger Federer Nike outfit
Rafael Nadal Nike outfit
Dominika Cibulkova dress by Lacoste
John Isner outfit by Lacoste
A trip down memory lane:
1956: First time at Roland Garros for Rod Laver
Portrait of Manuel Santana, first Spaniard to capture a Grand Slam title in 1961
1969: Rod Laver defeats Ken Rosewall
Portrait of 6-time Roland Garros champion Bjorn Borg
Portrait of Adriano Panatta, the only player to beat Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros
1978: Virginia Ruzici defeats Mima Jausovec
1982: At the request of Monsieur Wilander
1982: first Grand Slam for Mats Wilander
1984 French Open: Ivan Lendl defeats John McEnroe
1985 French Open: Chris Evert defeats Martina Navratilova
Roland Garros 1985: Mats Wilander defeats Ivan Lendl
Roland Garros 1988: bold Leconte swept aside by a Mats for all surfaces
Portrait of Natasha Zvereva, 1988 runner-up
Portrait of Arantxa Sanchez, 1989 French Open champion
Portrait of Michael Chang, 1989 French Open champion
1990 French Open: Opposites attract, Gomez defeats Agassi
1991 French Open 3RD: Michael Chang defeats Jimmy Connors
1991 French Open final: Jim Courier defeats Andre Agassi
Roland Garros 1996: Pete Sampras run through the semi-finals
Steffi Graf – Martina Hingis Roland Garros 1999
1999 French Open: Agassi-Graf, two days, one destiny
2005: Rafael Nadal defeats Mariano Puerta
2008: Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer
A look back at Roland Garros 2011
Pictures and Recaps:
Who will win Roland Garros 2014?
- Serena Williams (33%, 40 Votes)
- Maria Sharapova (30%, 37 Votes)
- Li Na (11%, 13 Votes)
- Simona Halep (10%, 12 Votes)
- Other (9%, 11 Votes)
- Jelena Jankovic (3%, 4 Votes)
- Agnieszka Radwanska (3%, 4 Votes)
- Victoria Azarenka (1%, 1 Votes)
- Angelique Kerber (0%, 0 Votes)
- Dominika Cibulkova (0%, 0 Votes)
- Petra Kvitova (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 122
Who will win Roland Garros 2014?
- Rafael Nadal (40%, 108 Votes)
- Novak Djokovic (29%, 79 Votes)
- Roger Federer (21%, 57 Votes)
- Stanislas Wawrinka (4%, 10 Votes)
- Other (2%, 6 Votes)
- Tomas Berdych (1%, 4 Votes)
- Andy Murray (1%, 3 Votes)
- David Ferrer (1%, 2 Votes)
- John Isner (0%, 0 Votes)
- Richard Gasquet (0%, 0 Votes)
- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 269
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.’
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
In order of seniority the leaders of the new generation, other than Graf, are Sabatini, Zvereva, Mary Joe Fernandez, Sanchez, Martinez, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati. All were born between 1970 and 1976.
In terms of tennis, physique, and character, they are poised at an intermediate stage of development. Consequently it would be futile to speculate about which is likely to give Graf most cause for concern in the next few years. The only point one will make is that in 1989, her fist year on the grand slam circuit, the 15-year-old Seles provided the most spectacular evidence of star quality.
From 1985 to 1988 Graf’s obvious contemporary rival was Sabatini, who occasionally beat her but could never manage to do sp on the big occasions. Dark, glamorous, and immensely marketable in promoting a variety of commercial products, Sabatini became a millionairess without winning anything of shattering importance. On the other hand she was a consistently prominent teenager and made two dents in the game’s history: by becoming the youngest French semi-finalist (in 1985, at the age of 15) and the first player from Argentina to reach the women’s singles final of a Grand Slam tournament (at Flushing Meadow in 1988). At 5ft 8in she is, like Graf, ideally built for women’s tennis but has to work hard to counter a tendency towards languor. Her game features heavy top-spin on both flanks – tiring for her but even more tiring for her opponents – and from time to time she lets fly with a fierce backhand down the line, one of the most dazzling shots in the modern women’s game.
Zvereva, from Minsk, is almost a year younger but, on the evidence so far available, is a smarter and slightly more versatile competitor: and the best player to emerge from the Soviet Union since Olga Morozova almost 20 years earlier. In 1988 Zvereva beat both Navratilova and Helena Sukova in straight sets on her way to the French final but, overawed and overpowered, could take only 13 points from Graf in an embarrassing 32-minute match.
Fernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but lives in Miami, is a baseliner in the Chris Evert mould. In 1985, at the age of 14, she became the youngest player to win a match in the US Open and nine months later she advanced to the last eight in Paris. In 1989 she had to miss her high school graduation ceremony because, in Paris, she had reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time.
Martinez, four months younger than Sanchez, is bigger and in many respects potentially better than her springy little compatriot. In 1988 Martinez joined the circuit and also beat Sanchez to win the Spanish national championship. In 1989 Grand Slam events it took either Graf or Sabatini to beat her.
Seles, too, has an unusual backgound for a tennis player: Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, though she lives in Florida and comes across as a typically outgoing American teenager. In 1989 she rang the alarm bells by beating Evert in Houston and then reached the semi-finals in Paris and the last 16 at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. Seles serves left-handed and hits her two-fisted ground strokes so hard that one almost expects smoke to rise from the court whenever she plays. She basks in the limelight as if born to it, plays to the gallery, gunts with effort as she explodes into her shots, and has an inimitably engaging giggle that sounds like a muted but busy machine-gun. A great entertainer – and clearly a champion in the making if her body can withstand the strain she puts on it.
But Seles, precocious though she is, must look out for another Florida-based prodigy, Capriati, who is two years and three months younger. Capriati plays a more conventional game, awfully well, and under her father’s guidance has begun to benefit from the modern science of physical conditioning at a younger age than the likes of Margaret Court and Navratilova did.
Which leaves us in the delightful company of the chubby and cheerful Sanchez, who never reached the semi-finalof a Grand Slam event until she had the sauce to beat Graf 7-6 3-6 7-5 in the 1989 French Open final. The match lasted two hours and 58 minutes, which meant that Graf was playing the longest match of her career when she was not at her peak. In boxing parlance, Graf punched herself out. She was forced to play too many shots. But she had two set points in the first set (her backhand let her down) and led 5-3 in the third, only to lose 13 of the next 14 points. At 5-6 down in the third set the pallid Graf had to dash to the dressing room because of stomach cramps and at 30-all in the next game she hurried to her chair for a quick drink. But what made her feel ill was, more than anything else, the fact that she spent far too long clobbering a punchbag with a mind of its own.
Sanchez was quick in her anticipation and footwork, inexhaustible in her energy and fighting spirit, and boldly resourceful in seizing chances to take the ball early and hit blazing ripostes. Gasping with effort, she bounced about the court like a pintable ball fresh off the starting spring, and kept rallies going long after Graf’s assault should, logically, have ended them.
Towards the end Sanchez even began to fancy her chances as a volleyer – and did rather well in that unfamiliar role. She had an engaging swagger, a ready smile, and the air of a dishevelled, overworked waitress with a knack of keeping all the customers happy. Sanchez had the time of her life, grew Graf’s sting, and at the end of the match tumbled on to the court like a romping puppy and bounced up with clay-spattered clothes and a broad grin. It had been a great lark.
The popular little champion went back to Barcelona and more public acclaim, more bouquets, and met King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia. How marvellously she had built on the confidence gained in Rome, where she had reached the final, and on the inspiring example of Michael Chang, who expanded her horizons in Paris when he beat the top men’s seed, Ivan Lendl.
Sanchez kept it up too, reaching the last eight at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow before Graf and Sabatini in turn arrested her progress. Her Wimbledon performance was embellished by a brillantly cheeky drop-shot when she was match point down to Raffaella Reggi. Thus it was that a bubbly lass with a sunny disposition had four dream-like months in the summer of her 18th year. If she has anything to teach her contemporaries it lies in the fun she has playing tennis and the fact that she never gives up on a point. But one suspect that because of her background, build, and playing method, she may excel only on clay.
The stocky Sanchez is about 5ft 6in tall. Spaniads are traditionally attuned to clay and Sanchez has sharpened her game in the company of two older brothers, Emilio and Javier, who made their mark on the professional tour while she was still advancing towards its fringe. It is no discredit to either that they cannot match their sister’s joyously boisterous approach to tennis and to life.