From breakdowns to Breakthroughs

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Those wide blue eyes don't miss much. As a young girl growing up in Moscow, Vera Zvonareva loved to gaze at the trophies her mother had won as an elite field hockey player and carefully tended the shelf where they were displayed. The centerpiece was a bronze medal from the 1980 Olympics.

Twenty-eight years later, in Beijing, Zvonareva added a medal of her own to the collection -- same color -- during a breakthrough season that saw her come back from a wrist injury to climb into the WTA's top 10. "She gave me a lot of inspiration as a kid,'' Zvonareva said in her measured, lilting voice. "It's nice to have two [medals] next to each other.''

Zvonareva, who entered the BNP Paribas Open ranked No. 6, has a clear vision of the person and player she wants to be. A lot of her work toward those goals takes place off the court.

When her wrist sidelined her for six months in the heart of the 2007 season, she enrolled in a three-year postgraduate program at a diplomatic academy supported by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Her undergraduate degree is in sports management.) Zvonareva, 24, spends her free time on the tour keeping up with course work in international relations and economics -- she's about halfway through -- and attends classes whenever she's home, sometimes cramming several exams into her rare breaks. She participates in conferences and other events on the diplomatic circuit in Moscow, and thinks her post-tennis niche might be in an organization like the United Nations.

But her first career is going pretty well at the moment. On the court, vision has to be followed by execution, and the biggest tests take place in the crucible of a packed arena. Zvonareva didn't put it all together on a consistent basis until late last year. She's 12-2 so far this season, with a semifinal appearance in the Australian Open and a title in Pattaya City, Thailand, and she has as much momentum as anyone in this merry-go-round of a women's top 10.

After a deflating second-round loss in last fall's U.S. Open, Zvonareva set her sights on the lone remaining meaningful prize of the 2008 season, embarking on an ambitious intercontinental campaign to try to crack the top eight and qualify for the year-end championships in Doha. She reached finals in four of the six indoor events she played and beat No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in her march to the year-end championship match.

Fatigue and pressure finally caught up with Zvonareva when she went up a set on Venus Williams in the title match but won just two games the rest of the way and saw the championship sift through her strings. Afterwards, it was apparent she wasn't satisfied with merely having been there.

"Pissed,'' said her coach, Samuel Sumyk, a native of France who has worked with Zvonareva for the last three seasons and is married to American pro Meilen Tu. "So close. One set away. But that tournament is good for anyone. To get to the final undefeated, only playing top-10 players, you get a huge amount of confidence.''

Zvonareva shook off that letdown before the new year began. She stormed through the Australian Open draw without dropping a set -- administering one double-bagel mauling and winning two other sets at love -- to reach the semifinals, where fellow Russian Dinara Safina finally felled her.

Veteran doubles specialist and commentator Rennae Stubbs said that Zvonareva's competitive path has paralleled Safina's in many ways. Although Zvonareva isn't as physically imposing as her taller countrywoman, the big keys to her improvement have been similar: better overall fitness, shoring up her weaker forehand and harnessing her sometimes volatile emotions. Zvonareva's four WTA doubles titles and two Grand Slam mixed doubles championships testify to her comfort level at the net, Stubbs added, although her transition game could be sharper.

"Working with Sam, she's become a lot more professional in everything she does,'' Stubbs said. "She used to come apart in big situations. Now she's allowing herself to breathe on court.

"She doesn't make any errors and she runs all day. Her technique is really solid. She's serving bigger and getting more free points that way. And she's unbelievably competitive."

Zvonareva has had a lifetime of practice to get there, wrestling with her own restless mind. Having options, between the lines or outside them, can be a mixed blessing.

"I think it's one of my problems,'' she said candidly to the question of whether she's too analytical for her own good. "It's very difficult sometimes. Everything is happening so quick on the tennis court. It's good to oversee the whole picture, but when you have a second, you don't want to think, should I hit a short crosscourt? Deep down the line? Or fast crosscourt, or down the middle? I have all those shots in my game.

"If I don't play matches for a long time and I lose the feel of it, I start thinking too much and I make life difficult for myself. I'm more experienced now and I know how to cope with this much better. I'm able to switch my mind much better now. I know what I have to do and I focus on it.''

Zvonareva has been to the quarterfinals three times in Indian Wells, and had one of the most significant wins in her career here in 2007 when she upset then-No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Now she's the one with the elite status, although she's still playing her opening match against Chinese Taipei's Yung-Jan Chan on an outer court Friday. One sign of her solid self-belief these days is that she recently asked her U.S.-based management agency, BEST, to beat the drum a little harder for her.

When she feels she's losing her way in a match, Zvonareva sometimes drapes a towel over her head during changeovers. "She's centering,'' Stubbs said. Zvonareva wants it understood that she's not hiding tears; rather, it's the only private space she can create in a public arena. But she makes no apologies for being demonstrative.

"Tennis is an emotional game -- I can show emotion, but still be steady inside,'' she said, her gaze level and calm, taking it all in, learning.


Bonnie D. Ford , March, 2009