From tantrums to Tolstoy: Zvonareva's many facets

Last year's runner-up tells Paul Newman about smashing rackets, studying diplomacy and why she's not jealous of Serena or Venus
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The Independent Online

They are not the first characteristics you would expect of a student at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Vera Zvonareva has famously cried on court, suffered meltdowns in matches and sees nothing wrong with smashing a racket or two.

Last year's beaten Wimbledon finalist is a woman of many facets. The 26-year-old Russian reads Tolstoy, is a "promoter of gender equality" with Unesco, works with the International Rett Syndrome Foundation to raise awareness of the disorder of the nervous system, has a degree in Physical Education and is studying International Economic Relations. She is in the process of writing a 30,000-word thesis on "how to increase the competitiveness of Russian products on the international market".

Zvonareva knows a thing or two about increasing competitiveness. Until two years ago she was regarded as little more than a journeywoman player who, in 24 Grand Slam tournaments, had managed just one quarter-final appearance. A run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2009 hinted at better things to come and last year she enjoyed her most successful season yet, reaching the final at both Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters respectively. With the withdrawal of Clijsters from this year's Wimbledon, she is the No 2 seed at the All England Club.

Nevertheless, the last time that Wimbledon saw Zvonareva she was in an all-too-familiar state. Having held things together when she was outplayed by Williams in the singles final, the Russian could not hold back the tears in the doubles final alongside her compatriot Elena Vesnina as they lost to Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova. She began crying after losing the tie-break at the end of the first set, burying her head in her towel as her partner tried to console her, and was in a similar state at the end of the match.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Zvonareva can also be a racket thrower. "If I'm not happy in the middle of the set I break my racket," she said in a matter-of-fact way. "That's fine. It's nothing. I'm an emotional person. That's OK, so long as I use my emotions to my advantage. I think it's stupid not to be emotional when you play sport. Fans are emotional. There wouldn't be such a thing as sport if there are no emotions. Sport is about emotions.

"If one day I feel like I'm so frustrated that I need to break my racket to let it out and focus on my game I will do it. I don't care what people say. Of course I don't want to break all my rackets, but if it happens it happens. I don't care. Sometimes it's the opposite. You have to calm yourself down and tell yourself: 'It's OK. Today you're tired or whatever. Take it easy. Try to focus on one point at a time. If it works, OK, if it doesn't work today that's OK too.' You just have to learn about yourself."

At just 5ft 7in tall and weighing just over nine stone, Zvonareva has worked at improving her physical as well as her her mental strength. "I don't have weapons like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova," she said. "I can't just wipe my opponent off the court with one winner and a great serve. I have to play and find another way to win matches."

She believes she can build on her successes last year. "It was definitely a great experience to be out there and to play in front of such a great crowd at Wimbledon and the US Open," she said. "I think I learned a lot of things just playing a lot of matches in the two weeks. I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to prepare myself the best I can in order to get to the last stages of the tournament in the best shape possible. It's tough because I've never really played seven matches in a row before."

There have probably been fewer world No 3s – she even reached No 2 at the end of last year – with such a low profile, but that does not worry her. "I think Serena and Venus deserve the attention they get, because they're great champions," she said when asked about all the interest in the returning Williams sisters.

"I don't really pay attention to what is going on around the court. I always try to focus on what is going on on the court, always try to focus on my game and always try to prepare myself the best I can so I can play my best tennis. That's all I'm thinking about."

Zvonareva admits that juggling her tennis with her studies can be a challenge. Having graduated in Physical Education, she enrolled at Moscow's Diplomatic Academy, where she is able to combine her interests in economics and international affairs. "As a tennis player I've travelled around the world, met people from different cultures and outlooks," she said. "The Diplomatic Academy seemed to be the perfect choice for me because I could use my tennis experience to help my studies."

Although she is able to do some of her academic work by correspondence, whenever Zvonareva returns home she goes into classes at the academy where she rubs shoulders with present and future diplomats and ambassadors.

Did she see herself as a future member of her country's diplomatic service? "Maybe not an ambassador but I'd definitely like to represent my country in some international organisations. That definitely interests me a lot, though I think it's a bit too early to think about that. The most important part for me is to get knowledge. At the moment I'm just trying to learn as much as I can."

She added: "I think I'm a diplomat in a way because I always try to understand people. I think a lot of conflicts in the world are because of misunderstandings. Sometimes people don't talk the truth or maybe they don't explain things properly. I think I'm a diplomat because no matter what a person has done I try to understand their actions."