After a three-and-a-half year absence from Grand Slam main draws, Vera Zvonareva is back competing in a major, having secured qualification for Wimbledon.
The former world No. 2, who made the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open back in 2010, saw her career derailed multiple times by injuries, but last season, started playing tennis again following a two-year hiatus, returning to the tour after having her first child, Evelyn.
Currently ranked 141 in the world, Zvonareva posted three impressive victories in Wimbledon qualifying this week to book herself a spot in her first Grand Slam main draw since the 2015 Australian Open.
The cerebral Russian, who has three different college degrees, will take on fellow Wimbledon runner-up Angelique Kerber in the opening round at the All England Club on Tuesday.
Sport360, along with tennis writer Tumaini Carayol, sat down with Zvonareva on the sidelines of the qualifying action in Roehampton this week to find out more about the 33-year-old’s return to the game.
Does the competition feel differently now compared to in the past when you were making Grand Slam finals and ranked in the top-10?
I think the women’s game is at a very high level right now, and I think all girls, not only top-100 girls, but 200, 300, 400 girls, they are playing really good tennis and they’re really taking care of their bodies, they want to be strong, they work out a lot, not only playing tennis but overall they are much better athletes nowadays. It’s very competitive out there. If someone can play their best tennis, even ranked 300 in the world they can still beat a top-20 or top-30 player out there. That makes a great competition.
Are you doing anything differently now to be able to compete at this higher level?
I wouldn’t say that I’m doing much different but I feel that I need to work much harder physically. I was injured a lot in the beginning of the year but I just felt like maybe I wasn’t physically as fit as before but also all other girls are much stronger now. So I felt like I needed to put in the hours in the gym, and I needed to get myself stronger and ready between the tournaments then of course during the tournaments you have to take it easy a little bit so you can feel fresh on the court but as soon as the tournament finishes you have to go back to the gym, that’s how it works nowadays.
What did you tell yourself before you decided to come back to tennis?
Really nothing. I wasn’t really planning on coming back to tennis but it just happened. I love the game, I started playing for myself a couple of exhibition matches and that’s how I got into it. I think my family really helped me, they said ‘Look you like to play tennis, why don’t you try to play a little bit and see how it goes? If you still want to do it a little bit, you can give it a shot’, and that’s what I did.
I realised I still love the game and I still want to be out there, compete, and eventually if I can make it up back to the big stages, that’s great, that’s awesome, being able to play on big courts against great players that’s what we are all looking for, it’s kind of a reward for the hard work.
But if I am not able to climb back up the rankings or not being able to make it to the big stages, it’s not a big deal for me. I was there, I know how it was, I had so many great emotions and experiences out there, so right now I’m just trying to enjoy every day, and trying to enjoy every match I can play.
Is it tougher finding motivation in qualifying events and the smaller tournaments?
For me I’m not really paying attention to that because I’m playing more for the love of the game. More to enjoy the moment of fighting, not because you’re winning or losing easily, but actually enjoy the fight itself, enjoy the challenges. So you always have to push yourself to be braver on the court, to go for your shots, or maybe to think a little bit more, change your tactics if something isn’t working, so that’s what I like.
You’re back playing as a mother, and someone who has recovered from so many injuries, what kind of message do you think your return sends?
I’m not sure what kind of message it sends but I think it’s that if you’re able to stay fit and take care of your body and compete, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Before, girls thought ‘Okay, if I have a baby, then I’ve got to stop playing’, but I think it’s a message out there that you can still have a family, and go back and get back in shape and compete out there and I think it’s very important.
You can see a lot of guys on the tour who have families but they continue their career and guys always played a little longer than girls before. But girls would stop earlier because they wanted to have a family but I think it’s important that even if they have a baby at a younger age, let’s say 25, they can still have even a 10-year tennis career afterwards, if they’re able to get back in shape.
You say you’re enjoying every day on tour now, was it easy to enjoy it when you were younger?
I guess we all do, but in that moment, when we’re a little bit younger, we have so much pressure and when you come up and everyone expects you to do well because you did well at one or two Grand Slams and everyone is watching you, sometimes you can’t enjoy that moment because you feel so much pressure.
You feel pressure that you have to practice every day and you have to beat everyone who is at least lower-ranked than you, all this. When you are younger it’s very difficult to find that joy and I think that’s the same for everybody. It’s only with experience and maybe – if you look at [Roger] Federer at his achievements, I’m sure he can enjoy the game much more than he could before he had any Grand Slams or anything. Now, it doesn’t really matter for him. If he loses, it’s not a big deal, he goes out there and tries to play the best he can, and if it works, great, if not, it’s not.
When you’re younger and everyone keeps asking you ‘Okay when are you going to break into the top-10? When are you going to make a Grand Slam final? When are you going win a tournament?’ That makes it a little bit more difficult.
You have many different degrees, why did you choose to study all these different things?
I always felt that you still need an education even though you’re a professional athlete, but you still want to educate yourself to make yourself better on the court but also off the court and I liked it. I have a few degrees but we’ll see. It’s a different life, a difficult challenge for me. I don’t know if I’ll stay in tennis after my tennis career or I’ll change, it’s kind of an open question for me.
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