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Natalia Zvereva, The Russian Rebel

Profile - Natalia Zvereva, The Russian Rebel
(Tennis Magazine, August 1990)

Do you want what I want?
Desire not a thing.
I hunger after independence,
Lengthen freedom's ring
-From Metallica's song "Eye of the Beholder"

Natalia Zvereva, soft-spoken and conservatively coifed, seems a most unlikely zealot of heavy metal music. In the music's angry frenetic strains, though, this Russian tennis star hears far more than mere cacophony.

"I think when I am listening to Metallica, it gives me an energy," she says of a favorite group. "When I'm listening to it, sometimes I put my finger on the Walkman, and imagine some energy wave or shock wave goes through my body, to my soul, to my brain.

Sometimes, when I have a bad spirit, when I'm feeling lonely, I listen to it." Sometimes when you're a 19-year-old girl standing up to the Soviet Union, that's all you can do.
"Natalia is a pioneer in our country, for the tennis players and for the other athletes," says Soviet national tennis coach Olga Morozova. "She was the first one who did it." What Zvereva did was give the communists who govern Soviet sports a course in capitalism. Incentive-based wages. Play for pay. It was not a course those graying, dark-suited bureaucrats wanted to take.

Eighteen months later, Soviet players no longer must send all their winnings home to Mother Russia. Zvereva herself owns a red Mercedes, a wallet fat with credit cards and enough rubles to send your average Russian reeling. But her ranking, which plunged from No. 8 to No. 27 during those months of official threats and fist-pounding negotiations, has not recovered fully. Nor has her spirit. Being a hero is hard.

To outsiders it appeared that Zvereva launched her individual revolution in April 1989, at the Family Circle Magazine Cup in South Carolina. There, during the post-final award ceremony, she made an impromptu protest on national TV. "This $24,000," she said, raising her runner-up check overhead, "it's not money, just a paper." But watching from the stands, her father Marat Zverev, knew the fought had begun years before. "I've always had a rough, primitive sense of what's fair and unfair," says Marat, a kindly 58-year-old whose eyes always seem to smile.

Up flew his internal red flag when in 1986 Zvereva won her first paychecks on the pro circuit - and Soviet officials snatched them away sooner than the ink of her endorsement signature could dry. But, as Marat knew, the Soviet tennis federation had supplied Zvereva with equipment, court time, coaching and travel expenses and a stipend that ranged, as she became increasingly successful, from about $300 to $900 a week. what's more, Marat says, "I didn't know what could be done about it, what the rules and the law were."
Marat was no stranger to rules, however, nor to breaking them. as a boy in the Stalin era, he was rebellious and uncontrollable. During the four years he lived at an army school while World War II was raging (his father died in the fighting), he would disappear for three or four months at a time, until the director finally booted him at age 15. A few years later, the Kiev institute for Physical Education expelled him, too. Marat finally graduated from a similar institute in Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, and settled into a junior tennis coaching position at the Central Red Army Club. At age 8, Zvereva began tagging along to his workouts, but only after Marat won several arguments with his wife, Nina, a former volleyball player who didn't want her daughter's life centered around sport.

Marat passed onto Zvereva the craftiness that had kept him among the top 15 Soviet players in the early 1960s. "His style was quite different than the others," says Yuri Aivazian, a Soviet sports official. "More slices, more placement, like her. I saw her in a tournament when she was 12, and I was impressed that she played a smart game. Not just hitting the ball like the others."

It was a good time to be an official-impressing 12-year-old. Tennis, about to become an Olympic sport, had been placed on the priority list of Goskomsport, the national sports bureaucracy. Money was put into training jjuniors with promise, and the best were sent onto the pro tour. By the end of 1987 the world's No. 19 was Natalia Zvereva, a spunky 16-year-old whose droll brand of humor made her a press conference favorite. During one laugh-in, a reporter asked what she planned to do with her prize money. "Why?" parried Zvereva. "Do you want a loan?"

At the 1988 French Open Zvereva beat Martina Navratilova on her way to the final. "Not my idea of glasnost," huffed Navratilova, and Marat seconded the notation when Soviet officials took nearly all of his daughter's $123,000 runner-up check. By this time, Zvereva had donated more than $500,000 to the federation's coffers. "She won such a big sum of money, and it wasn't fair," Marat says. "That's when I went back and raised my voice. I got a very hard response. It was the first time I realized what a totalitarian government meant."

Still, he sensed a softening in some of the bureaucrats, and as glasnost, perestroika and Zvereva's success continued on their timely convergence, the two began testing the system. Zvereva - along with Andrei Chesnokov, the Soviet Union's top male player - made tentative complaints to the press, cumulating in her paperwaving protest at the Family Circle Cup. But it was five days later, at the Amelia Island tournament, that Zvereva checkmated the Soviet Union. There she called a press conference to announce that she'd signed a contract with the management agency ProServ - a move designed to seize control of her prize money.

"The officials and the national sports committee were shocked," says Aivazian, for Zvereva had defied a Soviet law barring athletes from signing their own management contracts. No longer a voiceless name covered by the contract between the Soviet Tennis Federation and another company, International Management Group (IMG), Zvereva now could call her own shots. "IMG had singed a contract to represent the federation; ProServ signed a contract to represent Natalia," says Sara Fornaciari, Zvereva's ProServ agent.
ProServ than fanned the publicity flames to protect Zvereva, who in less than two weeks would return to the Soviet Union and an uncertain fate. "I hope it will all be over soon," an exhausted Zvereva said in one of several TV appearances. The media eagerly told Zvereva's tale, delighted by this comely capitalist who claimed she couldn't wait to buy a red Mercedes.

That line was not playing well in Red Square. She was crucified in the Soviet press for being selfish and greedy. But for Zvereva, it was simple self-interest. "In Russia, when you stop playing tennis there is nothing for you in the future. Nothing. Here in the U.S., you can go do whatever, especially when you have the name like Chris [Evert]. She's welcome to do broadcasting, exhibitions, everything. In the future for me, there is nothing."

When father and daughter finally returned to the Soviet Union, officials detained them and pressured Zvereva to renounce the ProServ contract. Zvereva was also told to endorse her most recent prize money checks, totaling $12,950. "I just didn't sign them," she says. "I don't know what happened to those checks."

The Soviet officials soon realized they could only quash Zvereva's capitalist coup by keeping her within the country, they only place their laws applied. Such a move, though, would not lend itself to the good game of glasnost. Thus began months of endless meetings among Marat, ProServ and the Soviet sports officials to negotiate the percentage of prize money Zvereva would keep and the percentage she would give to the tennis federation in the form of a tax.

As tournaments approached, the government frequently used its control over Zvereva's passport as an intimidation tactic. "They always tried to propose something just before she was leaving," says Severine Chinsky, part of the ProServ negotiation team. "There was always this threat that she wouldn't be able to leave."

Actually, Zvereva never was barred from competing, but during the remainder of 1989 she became a master of the tank. That is, she purposely stank, losing in the first or second round of six out of 10 tournaments. "In the U.S., if a person isn't paid for his work as he deserves, he won't work," she says. "If I'm not getting paid, I'm not going to work. No way."

While the prize money percentage was resolved in October (she kept approximately 65 per cent of her 1989 earnings), the trauma dragged into the spring of 1990 as Marat and ProServ began lobbying for a complete break from the tennis federation. This would give Zvereva, rather than the federation, the last word on her tournament schedule, endorsements, exhibitions and means of travel.

"It's really hard," said Zvereva in February, weary from living in an uneasy limbo. "I think nobody from the American players has this problem, this kind of pressure. I just want to be like them."

During those months, Zvereva shrouded herself from reporters with sullen evasiveness. Says Bud Collins, who had held the microphone during Zvereva's $24,000 protest at the Family Circle Cup: "I've never been able to have a decent conversation about it with her since. I asked her about it months later, nobody was around - she burst into tears." "She's had to harden herself because of all the pressure," explains ProServ's Betsy Brown, who works closely with Zvereva. "And it was tremendous, from both the government and the press."

Days before she was scheduled to leave for a tournament in February, Goskomsport officials met with Marat and Zvereva for one last shot at keeping her within the federation. They threatened she would be dropped from the Olympic and Federation Cup teams. "Marat said, 'No way,' recalls ProServ's Chinsky. "Natalia didn't say a word."

Back in Minsk for a month preceding the French Open, Zvereva and her father lived in an unfamiliar tranquility. They were not summoned to Moscow for a meeting. They were not told that Zvereva might be kept home from Paris. Says Brown: "When [the sports officials] stop fighting, it generally means we've won."

Now existing in a separate peace from the Soviet tennis federation, Zvereva and Marat pay and play their own way on the pro tour. "They can still come up with something new against us," Marat says. "I'm waiting for something to happen. Not something in particular, but I try to be ready.

Meanwhile, Zvereva's public displays of dejection bespeak the wounds rendered during her revolution for one. While her play has nearly recovered - two tournament wins in 1990 boosted her to No. 12 - she reveals only a shade of the spirit that once lent star quality to Soviet tennis.

At this year's Family Circle Cup in April, where the fight had gone public one year earlier, Zvereva sullenly deflected questions about her prize money situation. Later that week though, she talked to Tennis about her longest year. Asked if she'd been frightened to return to the Soviet Union after signing the ProServ contract, Zvereva paused, then laughed self-consciously. "Don't choke me up," she said, wiping teary eyes. "It's been a long time, and I kind of forgot about those bad things."
When you're battle-weary at age 19, sometimes that's all you can do.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
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