Following an injury or self-imposed absence, making a return to professional tennis isn’t easy. The physical and mental grind of the world’s most global sport is unmatched, and the (re)learning curve is steep even for the sport’s most established veterans. Some, like Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters, managed to look like they never left.
Is that the mark of a champion, or just luck?
For most, the road back to respectability is arduous.
A season ago, Vera Zvonareva returned to the WTA Tour perhaps earlier than she should’ve. The Russian missed a year of action following shoulder surgery – the latest in a long line of career-defining injury layoffs. Her first match at the Shenzhen Open came against top seed and tournament headliner, Li Na. More than a year removed from her last competitive match, Zvonareva looked the part; her fitness wasn’t world class, and her footwork was a step slow. Her groundstrokes, and her fighting spirit, however, hadn’t left. Li was the victor, 7-5, 6-3, but it seemed as though Zvonareva had won.
The rush to come back caught up to her. She sputtered for the rest of 2014 and played just three matches between the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Even the lawns of the All-England Club, the site of some of her greatest – and worst – career moments, couldn’t lift her. She made the third round, dispatching wildcard Tara Moore and Donna Vekic, but her tennis wasn’t pretty. After playing a handful of matches for the Austin Aces of Mylan World TeamTennis over the summer, Zvonareva shut her season down, proclaiming that she was not yet pain-free.
She returned to tennis in December at an ITF Pro Circuit event in Hong Kong, where the total purse was $10,000. Held at the venue of the WTA International event, a former World No. 2 – a woman who contested Grand Slam finals and classics against some of the sport’s greatest – roamed around after her own balls in front of a crowd of sparse hundreds in the shadow of a public park.
It was Zvonareva’s first appearance on the ITF Circuit in 14 years, and she looked miserable.
Her game did, too. She missed more shots than she made, and her serve found its way into the net far too often. She didn’t awe; she didn’t inspire. She didn’t look like a Grand Slam finalist, and yet, in a field where the highest-ranked player sat outside the world’s top 200, this was good enough. She reached the quarterfinals without dropping a set before withdrawing from the event.
She had enough practice; it was time to test herself for real. A week later, it was déjà vu for Zvonareva, who again returned to Shenzhen courtesy of a protected ranking is 2015. She again drew a local favorite in her first match, this time in the form of US Open semifinalist Peng Shuai.
This time, it was different.
Despite getting off to a slow start in the match, Zvonareva showed some of the sublime counter-punching tennis that took her to the top of the sport. She wobbled towards the end, but dispatched Peng, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. In the second round, she defeated Turkish qualifier Cagla Buyukakcay in straight sets, and the latter proclaimed in defeat that it was one the best matches she had ever played. Just when she was rounding into form, Zvonareva was dealt another blow; after five games, she was forced to retire with a back injury against Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals.
Dogged by questions ahead of yet another Grand Slam, Zvonareva easily dispatched Ons Jabeur in the opening round in Melbourne and set up a second-round date with World No. 1 Serena Williams. For a player who had often crumbled under pressure before, it appeared as though she was ready to embrace the moment – when she now, after all this time, might’ve felt as though she finally had nothing to lose.
Had a long chat with Vera Zvonareva before today's match with Serena. After all the struggles, she said she came back for matches like this—
Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) January 22, 2015
For a while, she was vintage – in more ways than one.
Under the midday Melbourne sun, the Russian sat – towel draped over her head – shutting out the world on every changeover. It was a welcome sight, a sight that so many others had since tried to replicate.
With Williams off her game, Zvonareva took advantage with the counter-punching brand of tennis that took her to the championship matches at Wimbledon and the US Open. Her backhand was on point, stretching the World No. 1 out wide and pinning her to the corners. Her serve – the first thing to collapse when her body (and mind) betrayed her – held up strong. She broke the Williams serve twice in the opening set, and toughed out her own service game at 4-3 to open up at 5-3 advantage. As Williams continued to misfire, Zvonareva held firm, and carved out three set points on the American’s serve in the ensuing game.
She wouldn’t win another.
Williams cleaned up her game, but it was Zvonareva’s turn to melt. The Russian’s forehand – long her Achilles’ heel – started to break down. Her fitness – still not up to competition standard – seemed to leave her as the match wore on. She gestured and monologued as Williams’ shots passed her by and her own unforced errors mounted. All 11 of the Russian’s winners came in the first set, and Williams rode the wave of momentum to a 7-5, 6-0 victory.
At the end of the day, Zvonareva’s effort against Williams in Melbourne might end up as a footnote: the second of three bagel sets that the American handed out to each her first three opponents. For the Russian, however, it showed a lot more.
It showed how far she’s come, and how far she still has to go.