My favourite Natasha article:
Not a singles regret
by Joel Drucker
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.
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
'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
Adds Davenport, 'She's just the best doubles partner, so supportive,
friendly, fun and smart.'
Before pairing up with Davenport this year, Zvereva won Grand Slam
doubles titles with four other women. She and fellow Russian Neiland (nee
Savchenko) teamed to win the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon
doubles titles. When the duo parted on friendly terms soon after winning the
latter crown, Zvereva joined with Pam Shriver to win the '91 U.S. Open. But it
was in 1992, when she teamed with Fernandez, that Zvereva found her
perfect doubles partner.
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 tempermental.'
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 the November 1998 issue of Tennis Magazine