DADDY'S GIRL NO LONGER by Natalya Bykanova
Article from Australian Tennis Magazine (January 1993)
Women's tennis has its share of notorious tennis fathers. NATALIA ZVEREVA'S was one of them. But the 21-year-old Russian gave her father the boot. Now she's kicking on. "I miss my mother and my native city Minsk," Natalia Zvereva told me. No mention of her father, Marat Zverev, whom she always referred to as her one and only coach.
The family idyll lasted until 1991. At Birmingham that year, Natasha appeared not with her father but with her boyfriend Dmitry Tatur, a former pupil of the same Minsk tennis club where Natalia learned the game. Marat never approved of his daughter's choice. "Shallow person," was his angry comment on Dmitry and he did his best to keep his daughter away from the handsome young man. The father failed and soon failed twice, as Natalia hired a new coach, Juan Nunez, who had previously worked with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
Zvereva thus became the first top woman player to escape her father's influence. The escape has turned into an impressive comeback for the young woman who was French Open finalist at 17. She won three Grand Slam doubles titles in 1992 (Wimbledon and the French and US Opens) with Gigi Fernandez to take her total to seven. She was a quarterfinalist in singles at the French Open and Wimbledon. She climbed as high as No.1 in the world in doubles.
Natalia's battle for independence from her father was inevitable. Even as a young child she expressed and stuck to her point of view. "My first independent step happened at school," recalls Natasha. "I was asked to run on the May 1 celebrations. But I never ran well and feared I would finish last in front of the whole stadium. So my answer was no. They kept trying to convince me but I didn't come. When holidays were over and everybody returned toschool, the class blamed me for letting them down. But I never promised anything, just told them I wouldn't come. And I didn't.
"A few years later, while still a kid, the whole world witnessed her rebel character. In 1989 Zvereva publicly accused the Soviet Sports Committee of robbing its leading athletes. Only after her stand did other Soviet sports stars raise their voices for justice as well. Zvereva's fight was strongly supported, if not inspired, by her father. "Is it fair," Marat would often ask me, "to be paid the same for the best and worst performance?" For reaching the French Open singles final in 1988, where she defeated Martina Navratilova among others. Natasha received $900, the same as she would have got for losing in the first round. Father and daughter stuck together and got what they wanted: total independence from the country's sports ministry and the right to keep Zvereva's prize-money. But the triumph came at a price. "The fight against the system overshadowed the tennis," maintains Olga Morozova, the only Soviet Wimbledon finalist and later coach of the national women's team. "Natasha lost her balance and concentration. She was no longer as deeply involved in tennis as at 17, when she broke into the top 10.
"Natasha never accused her father of being behind her drop in the rankings from to 27 in 1989, at least not publicly. She still nominates her peak 1988 year with her father as the best time of her career. "I didn't even notice me being a top player," she says. "The hard work seemed to be a joy. Everything came so naturally. I hit madly and every ball was in. No other thing mattered to me at that time but tennis. "Morozova dreamed of seeing Natasha among the three queens of tennis: Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Natalia Zvereva. The first half of 1989 had Graf at No.1, Sabatini at No.3, and Zvereva, the youngest of the trio, at No.5.
But by the end of the year, Zvereva became not a symbol of Soviet tennis might but a symbol of the emerging perestroika. As the father-daughter union turned into the "us-against-the-world" partnership, Natasha received bad press from some journalists, who accusing her of being selfish and ungrateful for demanding to keep her prizemoney. People back at the club in Minsk wished for her to lose. In truth, Zvereva has never had much time for journalists, but at this time father and daughter even stopped talking to Morozova, associating the national team coach with the regime. "Marat didn't allow anyone near her," recalls Morozova. "Natasha stopped listening to my advice, though before, I never had to repeat anything on the court.
Father and daughter started training on a half-court, hitting balls at slow pace and concentrating on variety: topspin, slice, dropshots, half-volleys. The game, limited to half a court, required thorough footwork, accuracy and ball sense. Zverev taught his daughter to attune herself to the game, her body, the racquet, the ball. His theory could only be shared by his closest relative and he was lucky that the most gifted pupil he ever got happened to be his own daughter. She was the only one who could be made to listen. And she listened.
Zvereva was first spotted as a great talent when she was 12-years-old. She drove opponents crazy with deep topspin and unpredictable dropshots. Also noticeable was that she was inseparable from her father; a graceful kid with a wood racquet and a grey-haired man always in the same ski wool cap and down-at-heel trainers. Zverev never cared about his appearance and even when he had enough money to buy something more presentable, made Natasha blush at his choice. His main requirement of clothing was that it be comfortable to play tennis in. No one ever remembers seeing Marat wear a tie. He never minded the style in which he lived either, preferring close to court barracks to a five-star hotel. A coach at the Minsk Central Army Club for more than 30 years, Zverev acquired a reputation as a strict, unsociable man. Looking at his screwed-up blue eyes, you could never know whether he was being serious or ironic. On the court Marat was a strict teacher and punished Natasha for mistakes without mercy. "He could order her to hit against the wall for three hours," recalls Marina Selikhova, an opponent from junior days. "Marat was rude to Natasha, though I never saw him striking her. But he was strict and unpredictable in anger. She feared him.
"There is a tragic explanation for Marat's strictness with his daughter. Years before, his eldest child, a son, died when still a boy. He was a talented athlete, his father's hope. In a gym he climbed a basketball board, smiling and mimicking to his Dad. In Russia there are many such indoor halls used for tennis, basketball, volleyball and handball. Many kids climb basketball boards. But none died doing it. Marat's son was the only one. Somehow, the board became unhinged and buried the boy under its weight.When Natasha started to travel from one junior tournament to another, her father was always there, never losing sight of her. The memory of his son's death haunted him. "My father is always with me," Natasha told me some time back. "Most of the time I spend touring with him. Dad always teaches me what to do, how to live. Sometimes it's hard to bear." At the time she was growing from the Daddy's Girl into the independent young lady. But the transformation wasn't yet complete. "I don't know what I am saying now," she added with a smile. "Probably I will regret it very soon."
Apart from Zverev's inflexible character, his method of teaching also came under criticism at the Minsk Club. Charged with teaching outdated methods and techniques, Marat was dismissed as coach in the early 1980's. Natasha was also immediately expelled from the club. To have his daughter continue her training, Marat applied for the only vacancy available at the club: decorator". As decorator, Marat went on coaching Natasha. His wage was 90 roubles a month, less than half a coach's salary at that time. The disgrace lasted two years and Natasha shared all the bitterness of being an unwanted person. It showed in her shy, complex manner off court. Natasha never spoke much and when invited to join a social gathering, would rarely come. She feared being a burden, an unwelcome guest. The girl preferred to spend time reading alone and was the only young player to take a book with her wherever she went. For her, books were the best company; they couldn't hurt her with words or deeds. "Even when Natasha decided to join us, she would sit most of the time silent," remembers Selikhova.
When she was 12, the authorities noticed this quiet, industrious girl and selected her to the USSR national junior team. She received her first set of Western-made tennis clothes. That was nine years ago. Today Zvereva is a millionaire, with career earnings approaching $2 million. "I dream about a black Mercedes convertible," she told me recently, "but in Florida this color will be too hot."
It is in Florida that Natalia now trains, sharing a coach and apartment with Dutch pro Brenda Schultz. Coach Nunez, who led Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to her French Open win in 1989, was introduced to Natasha by American millionaire Jim Levy, her former sponsor. "He is the right person I need," says Natasha. "I found the balance in my game and life and the taste to fight. It's right here. "To understand what she means one should compare her love in 1992 with the previous year, when she reached rock bottom by losing to American Linda Harvey-Wild in the second round at Wimbledon. "I am pretty satisfied with what I have," were her words of more than a year ago. "At the time, she could have easily experienced doubt and regret about her decision to leave her father and hire Nunez as coach. But the decision was made and the second chain fell. Zvereva had recognized herself as an individual. At 20 she was ready to make her own decisions and be her own master. "She is a strong person," boyfriend Dmitry was the first to admit. Her father would be the last. That is why there was no going back to her father, even though Natasha was burdened by her worst ranking in four years.
The first vindication of her decision came at last Year's French Open, where she battled with Graf for three sets in the quarter-finals, and won the doubles with Gigi Fernandez. At Wimbledon she did the same - last eight in singles (with wins over Conchita Martinez, Lori McNeil and Zina Garrison) and a second Wimbledon doubles crown. That was something to be proud of; Zvereva had never before reached two Grand Slam quarter-finals in a year and never won two Grand Slams in a season. Not bad for someone whose independence is just one year old.