This wasn't your average breakfast hour at the North Redington Beach Hilton. Tourists with Mickey Mouse T-shirts and bleary-eyed businessmen pressed against a railing 10 feet above a stretch of West Florida sand, while another handful of early risers gazed down at the commotion from the balconies of their hotel rooms.
It was just past 7 a.m. on April 19, and 18-year-old Natalia Zvereva of the Soviet Union, the eighth-ranked woman tennis player in the world, was ready for another round of television interviews. Three...two...one: Now she was speaking live via satellite to Good Morning America's Charles Gibson, retelling a tale that had thrust glasnost with an American twist onto the nightly news.
All this attention was focused on Zvereva, who possesses one of the most formidable backhands in the game, because she had shown the Soviet Tennis Federation the back of her hand. The week before, she had announced that she would challenge her country's system of withholding prize money from its athletes by starting to keep the lion's share of her winnings and that she had signed a contract with ProServ, the Washington, D.C.-based sports-management firm. She backed up her words by pocketing a $10,000 paycheck two weeks ago at a tournament in Amelia Island and another for $2,300 last week at the Eckerd Open in Largo. In the past she had made do with a weekly allowance of about $800. What's a motherland to do?
And what's Zvereva going to do with all that money? She's a voracious reader of romance novels and a faithful viewer of music videos. "If I'm boring from the other shows, I just turn on MTV," she says in a lapse of her usually fluent English. But what Zvereva really likes is cars, and although she doesn't have a license and is still learning to drive, she has her heart set on one in particular. "A big red Mercedes-Benz," she says. "A 500 SEL. It's the best car there is."
And Zvereva could easily afford such a car, if she finally gets to retain her earnings—which has not been the case with most of the $500,000 she has amassed since turning pro last May. "The other players on tour get to keep their money," she says. "They're working. It's not just a hobby. It's professional tennis. So if you win a lot, you have to have your financial reward."
Whether she will get her wish should be decided this week in Moscow, where the Zvereva contingent was scheduled to meet with tennis federation officials about her decision. She may not receive a warm reception. Victor Galaev. general director of Sovintersport, which oversees the commercialization of Soviet athletes abroad and is pretty money hungry itself (page 11), said as much last week in New York. "The tennis players are fully supported," said Galaev. "They get coaches, doctors, everything. Our tennis players didn't win a bronze medal |in Seoul], in spite of their promise. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to fulfill their obligations."
And Zvereva won't be alone in her attack on the system. After winning a tournament and $28,000 in Nice on Sunday, Andrei Chesnokov, the U.S.S.R.'s top male player, announced that he, too, wanted to pocket his prize money. Chesnokov, 23, said he had been permitted to keep "maybe $10,000 to $12,000" of the $500,000 he has won since turning pro in 1984. I won $59,500 at Orlando last year, I got $496 from the federation," he said. "Can you believe that—$496?" Chesnokov, who is No. 30 on the computer, wasn't optimistic, although he intended to "talk to some people" this week. "It's impossible to talk to the federation," he said. "There's only one way to do it. Zvereva found the way."
Zvereva indicated the direction she was heading during a tournament in Hilton Head, S.C., on April 9. Moments after losing to Steffi Graf in the final, she joined NBC commentator Bud Collins in front of a camera on the court and stole the show by boldly lamenting her lack of financial incentives. "It's just a piece of paper," she told Collins, holding the runner-up check for $24,000. The crowd cheered wildly. Stunned, Collins said nothing.
Three days later, at Amelia Island, Zvereva was upset by Regina Rajchrtova, who is ranked No. 133. Afterward, Zvereva complained that she "didn't feel good motivation to win" because she wasn't allowed to retain her winnings. "Maybe I need a therapist," she said.
She went on to say that she had a different remedy for her unhappiness and that she would reveal her "secret" the next week in Largo. Defection rumors swirled about the grounds. To quash the speculation, Zvereva decided to reveal her secret at Amelia on April 14. She said that she had recently signed with ProServ and would begin receiving her prize money directly. She would continue to pay a percentage of her earnings to the Soviet federation and to represent her country in international play, but she would now call the financial shots.
Two days later, Zvereva and Larisa Savchenko defeated Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver to win the doubles title. The victory was especially sweet because it came on Zvereva's 18th birthday. Her present was a check for $10,650. During the awards ceremony, the spectators sang Happy Birthday. Tournament officials gave her a cake and a bouquet of balloons, which Zvereva gave to a fan to release into the sky.
When Zvereva arrived in Largo, the press was waiting. At first she held her own, patiently stating her case to NBC Nightly News and The New York Times after a 6-3, 6-2 opening-round victory over Kate Gompert. However, after granting an interview to Good Morning America the next day, she appeared drained and overwhelmed. Finally, when it came time that afternoon for a photo session with SI, Zvereva broke into tears and walked away. A tour official consoled her with small talk of rock music and Disney World. Zvereva eventually regained her grip and consented to pose briefly.
The pressure was still mounting by Thursday's second-round match. Zvereva, seeded second, looked shaky from the start and lost 6-4, 6-1 to Petra Langrova, a qualifier. Afterward, Zvereva said, "I knew I was going to lose. It's been a pretty tough week."
The subplot in this play-for-pay showdown is an escalating cold war between ProServ and its archrival, the International Management Group. ProServ represented Sovintersport and the Soviet Tennis Federation for three years. But in March the Soviets switched to IMG, giving it the right to manage all its tennis players.
IMG insists that its contract with the tennis federation gives it exclusive rights to all players from the U.S.S.R., including Zvereva. "The Soviets told us that our contract stands as far as they're concerned," says Stephanie Tolleson, IMG's vice-president for tennis. "That contract says specifically that we manage all Soviet tennis players, men and women, outside the Soviet Union. They're saying Zvereva was outside of her rights in signing with ProServ."
But Sara Fornaciari, Zvereva's agent at ProServ, has a different legal opinion. She maintains that under U.S. and international law, an individual has the right to make his or her own contract. "Our position and Natalia's position is that she didn't consent to be included in that group," says Fornaciari.
The federation will have the final say. If it enforces the IMG contract or forbids Zvereva from keeping her prize money, there may not be much left for ProServ to dispute. Zvereva has said that if an agreement can't be reached with Soviet officials, she'll quit tennis and earn a living elsewhere.
Last week, she seemed optimistic. First Olga Morozova, the Soviet women's coach, phoned from the U.S.S.R. to give her the green light to enter the European Open in Geneva on May 22 and the French Open one week later. Then came a call from someone with the federation. Zvereva suggested that the official had said her situation could be worked out, but she refused to be specific. "It will be very difficult, but there's a chance," said Zvereva.
How much of her winnings does she think she will be allowed to keep?
"I believe it will be more than a half," she said.
Such a thought would have been unheard of not long ago in the Soviet Union. For one thing, the U.S.S.R. didn't produce any players good enough to make big money. But with the addition of tennis to the Olympics, the Soviets have started to make strides in developing stars in the sport. Now, two other women from the U.S.S.R., Savchenko and Leila Meskhi, are among the top 40, and four men—Chesnokov, Andrei Chersakov, Alexander Volkov and Andres Vysand—are ranked in the top 100.
Then there's Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, which created the atmosphere in which a teenager can publicly challenge national authority—and possibly get away with it. "If she had said what she did five years ago, that's the end of her," says Martina Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1975. "She'd never go out [of the U.S.S.R.] again."
However Zvereva fares with the Soviet Tennis Federation, she has plenty of support. Her mother, Nina, and her 22-year-old brother, Jaroslav, are pulling for her back home in Minsk. Her father, Marat, who's also her coach, has been at her side through most of the controversy. "I don't think there's anything out of line with her request," he says.
Savchenko has yet to ask for her prize money, preferring to wait and see what happens this week in Moscow. Does she regard her countrywoman as brave? "Maybe so," she says.