This time last year, Vera Zvonareva was playing her way to the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Now she is ranked No. 7 on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and gaining strength after an ankle injury earlier this season. In a recent interview with SI.com, the 24-year-old Moscow native discussed her thoughts on the success of Russian women, her experience as a ball girl and her other life as a student of international affairs.
SI.com: As one of four Russian women ranked in the top 10, explain your compatriots' concentration of talent in recent years.
Zvonareva: After I won the Orange Bowl in Miami for the under 18s in 2000, my ranking went up to top 50 in the world so quickly. Before that I was just working hard and doing my best. I always had a lot of belief in myself. Lots of Russian girls believe in themselves. They know if they want to achieve something, they can.
Anna Kournikova and Yevgeny Kafelnikov were really the first ones to win huge competitions and travel internationally. Watching them gave inspiration to younger players. Kafelnikov was really my idol. He was practicing next to us and I met him. When you watch all those stars on TV, they seem so untouchable. But to have him next door, he was very big and an unbelievable player. When I first met him, I asked for an autograph. I was actually a ball girl at a tournament in Moscow. I was standing in front of his chair. He was always asking for a Coke with ice. He was very polite. Always Coke and ice.
SI.com: How good were you as a ball girl?
Zvonareva: I did it for three years. I'd arrive before 9 a.m. and stay past midnight. Tough hours, but I was fighting for my position. I started on the wall and ended up being center court for a night session match at the net. I made my way up into the great ball kids. Then I wanted to achieve my dream of being a player even more.
SI.com: Where did you practice growing up?
Zvonareva: From the age of 6 I worked at a little club called Chajka, which has only one court. I went there for 16 years.
SI.com: Last summer you represented Russia in the Beijing Olympics and won the bronze. What was it like replacing Maria Sharapova shortly before the Games began?
Zvonareva: I was supposed to be going there only for doubles. It didn't really matter if it was singles or doubles to me, though. I would have loved to do both. Unfortunately, Maria Sharapova got injured and they needed someone to take her place. I had to get ready really quickly. I had to go from the States to Beijing to refocus. I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It turned everything around for me. I was able to push myself to the limit in those tough matches. I found something extra, and kept reminding myself, "I'm at the Olympics! I'm at the Olympics!"
SI.com: Your mother participated on Russia's field hockey team in the 1980 Moscow Games. Did she have any Olympics advice for you?
Zvonareva: I don't really discuss tennis with my mom. She shared some of her experiences when I was a kid. I think she was just excited for me. I heard from Elena Dementieva and girls who competed previously to prepare myself. They knew what would be a possible distraction and helped me along. I loved the Village for athletes. Everyone was around. You could see people from different sports. Someone is waking up at 5 a.m. to work, some are staying up past 11 p.m. Everyone gets together in the dining area. You see athletes from all over the world and they're living next to you. You live in a little area that's creating a small international country for two weeks.
SI.com: The Olympics were not your only international experience. Talk about your time as a postgraduate student at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Zvonareva: My previous agent knew me since I was a kid. He got me involved with the university. When I injured my wrist in 2006, I had some time off. He said, "Why not try school?" He knew that I had always loved school; it wasn't torture for me like for other kids. I was a pretty good student. So why not try to go to the diplomatic academy? He said, "You travel the world. You know people from all over. Do something like international economic relations or international affairs."
I really loved it. I was doing lots of treatment for my wrist. My head was busy with my wrist. School brought me something else. I still did my treatment, but I got to turn away from that a little bit. It helped me to recover and put my head back into my game when I was ready. The students and teachers just live such different lives from what I am used to now and it's great to meet people outside tennis.
SI.com: How did the injury come about?
Zvonareva: It just happened over time. I started feeling pain. Five years ago, I had to stop for a few weeks. I stopped for a few weeks, and it didn't come back for another two years. Then I aggravated it on clay courts under the rain hitting heavy, heavy balls. It was a difficult time. I couldn't compete for almost six months. I had lots of doubts whether I could come back and compete at the same level.
I had great support from my coach and family. We experimented, changed my backhand a little. At the end of the day, I think the backhand is better than it was before. The transition was difficult; you take six months away, and you have no feel for what you can do on the court. The ball is coming at you and you have no decision-making skills. On the pro level, you have so little time. If you take an extra second, your opponent will take advantage of it. You have to be able to execute your shots quickly. When you've been away from the game, you start thinking too much. There are some shots where you would go right for it if healthy, but now you are thinking about what the best option is and where you should place the ball? You lose your rhythm and you don't have as much confidence.
SI.com: The U.S. Open has been good to you. In 2006, you took the women's doubles title with Nathalie Dechy. In 2004, you partnered with Bob Bryan to win the mixed title. Why the move away from doubles in recent years?
Zvonareva: I'm doing less doubles right now because of where I am with singles. It requires too much physically and mentally to do both. When you're younger and you are hungrier, you try to get as much experience as you can. You can handle a little more physically. Now you start thinking that maybe you should just practice and work on what you want instead of playing doubles. To win those trophies was great. I think I realize it more now since it was a few years ago. Not everyone can say they got a Grand Slam title.
SI.com: What would it mean to get a Slam singles title?
Zvonareva: It's probably a dream for anyone. I have the game but I have to keep working harder. There are younger, more powerful girls coming up. I have to try to get back from an ankle injury. I made the semis at the Australian Open this year and won Indian Wells, but I was on crutches for almost six weeks. I tried to come back at Wimbledon, but reinjured it a little and had to pull out of my third-round match. I'm far away from my best, but I know which direction I have to take.
SI.com: Compatriot Elena Dementieva had a classic battle with Serena Williams in the Wimbledon semis. What is your relationship like with her?
Zvonareva: I have a lot of appreciation for Elena's game. Everyone was talking about her serve, but she was able to put a lot of it to the side. It's not easy to fight against everybody when they say, "Your serve sucks!" She's very tough to play. Everyone used to talk that she didn't have a singles title. Now she has . She's a tough opponent for sure.
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