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Small Babe, Big Results 10/24/2010 - 11:25 PM

Vz1by Bobby Chintapalli, Contributing Writer

‘Big babe tennis’ is about strong women who know how to smack a tennis ball harder than the rest. The Top 100 is loaded with them—Maria Sharapova, of course, but also Elena Dementieva, Nadia Petrova, Dinara Safina and, more recently, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Alisa Kleybanova. Yet it’s a Russian not on this list who has the best ranking of them all right now. Today, Vera Zvonareva took the No. 2 spot from a big babe you may have heard of, Serena Williams. Small babes can play, too.

It’s a career-high ranking for Zvonareva and a bit of a surprise for many of us, partly because we’ve been busy obsessing over another not-so-big babe’s rise to the top spot. So how did Zvonareva do it? I mean, she’s short and everything. (All right, she’s not short, but at just under 5’8” she’s shorter than 12 of the 17 Top 100 Russians.) She was ranked outside the Top 20 only a few months ago. Sure, she won an Olympic bronze medal and three Grand Slam doubles titles in past years, and reached two Grand Slam finals in a row this year. But No. 2 in the world…really?

You’re not immediately sure what Zvonareva did, but you know she did something right. It’s fitting, because that’s how she can make her opponents feel when she plays well. Ask Melanie Oudin. After her quarterfinal loss to Zvonareva in Charleston, Oudin seemed as discombobulated as the word sounds. “I did not hit a clean ball…and she really made me hit like that because she started changing everything up on me,” she said, more breathlessly than usual. “I started shanking. I would hit the tip of my racquet and all kinds of stuff.”

Zvonareva’s got skills beyond the ability to vary spin and pace and make Melanie Oudin shank a lot. Like the know-how to hit a backhand down the line or crosscourt without setting up all that differently. “It’s very hard to read the shot,” said Kim Clijsters after her fourth-round loss to Zvonareva at Wimbledon. “Especially when she goes down the line, it’s like a last-second.”

Now the results are paying off for her, literally. Zvonareva, who turned pro a decade ago, earned nearly 30 percent of her career prize money this year alone. That might have a little something to do with her win percentage: For her career it’s around 68 percent; for the year it’s around 73 percent. By comparison, this year’s win percentage for Francesca Schiavone, who herself had a year worth celebrating with a naked run down the Champs-Élysées, is 66 percent.

There have been bumps along the way, of course. Last February, Zvonareva reached a career-high No. 5, but an ankle injury tripped her up, causing her to miss the French Open and struggle for at least half the year. At the start of the year it wasn’t clear if she’d get that momentum back. She says she’s fully recovered now, and perhaps the memories of that injury and others before it have made her more excited to be out there practicing, which has made it easier for her to do all this winning.

There have also been some coaching changes. The much-Googled, oft-ogled Sergey Demekhin is her third coach in the past year. Things seem to be going well though. She said he’s gotten familiar enough with her game to give actionable advice and comfortable enough with her to know how to give it.

And, yes, there’s been some on-court wackiness. We’ve seen tears, like the ones partner Elena Vesnina spent a whole set of the Wimbledon doubles final wiping away. We’ve seen racquet-smashing and, for good measure, wicker-kicking. Yet the drama’s become a smaller part of the bigger Zvonareva picture. Commentators who begin and end with “emotional meltdowns” do her an injustice…and not enough homework. This year she’s shown that she’s more than the sum of the racquets she’s smashed and the tears she’s shed.

Off court, that’s easy to see. Zvonareva is composed, articulate and downright nerdy. (She’s working on a second degree, in International Economic Relations no less.) I’ve found those qualities also make her an excellent interviewee. She’s surprisingly open, attentive and voluble. (Sometimes she’ll go on longer than you expect, and just when you start wondering if she’s answering the right question, she’ll wrap it up with a reference to the question.) That’s been true even when she’s lost and acted up in the process, as she did in that one-sided Charleston final against an unbeatable Sam Stosur.

Zvonareva came to her post-match interview within 10 minutes of that match ending. A dozen or so of us sat in the small room, saying nothing at first, mindful perhaps of the score (and the wicker). Less comfortable with silence than I should be (according to my sisters anyway), I finally blurted out a question. As usual, Zvonareva spoke calmly and at length. Was this really the same woman we saw on court just 10 minutes ago? She certainly wasn’t Svetlana Kuznetsova glumly mumbling after her Cincinnati loss, or Yanina Wickmayer uttering monosyllabic responses after hers. I may not have agreed with some of Zvonareva’s answers, but I appreciated that she gave them her full attention.

The thing is, the way Zvonareva carries herself off court and the way she can sometimes melt down on court both owe more than a little to the same quality—her perfectionism. Zvonareva wants to do everything as well as she can, regardless of the results. A perfectionist “squeezed like a lemon” can stay on YouTube forever—or maybe become the No. 2 tennis player in the world.

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Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro, reigning World's no 1.1. 10/25/2010 at 06:06 PM

Grace, some advice, completely ignore most things that the so called pundits and experts say about Venus and Serena. If they tell you that they failed to give their opponents credit, go back and get the entire post match transcript. Carill, after Serena beat Sharapova, "this kid (Sharapova) is better". P-mac, "We know they can hit the ball hard, now they have to learn how to play tennis." Over the years of hearing this nonsense, I have learned to disregard most of what is said about them and to formulate my own opinions. Venus and Serena have never been treated the same as other American stars.

Posted by Key 10/25/2010 at 06:40 PM

What is Sharapova doing with nails like that? She should have done manicure, at least for this special time when everyone takes tons of pictures of her fingers, lol

Posted by grace 10/25/2010 at 06:47 PM

Lindsy Davenport and Mary Pierce started their tennis careers way before the Sisters and Mary Carillo never used the term "big babe tennis". When the Williams sisters started winning everything and changed the face of tennis Mary Carillo came up with the term "big babe tennis". This was her way of saying that the Williams sisters were nothing but big ball bashers!

Posted by Master Ace 10/25/2010 at 07:03 PM

Tuesday Order of Play:

WTA - Doha at 10 AM
First match - Vera Zvonareva(46-17; 7-8) vs Jelena Jankovic(38-20; 4-2)
Second match - Caroline Wozniacki(59-15; 5-2) vs Elena Dementieva(40-16; 5-4)
Third match - Francesca Schiavone(39-20; 4-7) vs Samantha Stosur(45-17; 3-4)


St. Petersburg at 5 AM - Istomin, Zeballos vs Hanescu and Mathieu scheduled
Montpellier at 6 AM - Dent, Zverev vs Haase and Darcis scheduled
Vienna at 7 AM - Garcia-Lopez vs Berrer, DeBakker, Malisse vs Giraldo and Chela scheduled
Montpellier at 8 AM - Lacko vs Mannarino
Vienna at 9 AM - Blake vs Kubot
Montpellier at 10 AM - Isner vs Paire
Vienna at 10:30 AM - Haider-Maurer vs Muster
St. Petersburg at 11 AM - Kunitsyn vs Tipsarevic followed by Tursunov vs Przysiezny
Montpellier at 1 PM - O Rochus vs Llodra followed by Nalbandian vs Gran

Posted by grace 10/25/2010 at 07:10 PM

Yet, when Maria Sharapova, the tallest ball bashers of them all came along, Mary Carillo had to make the term "big babe tennis" seem more positive then negative; except when referring to the Williams sisters. Lets face it, Sharapova even got a commerical doing nothing but bashing tennis balls; white America and White Europe loved it!!!

Unfortunately, the omnipresence "RACE" is always the "ELPHANT" in the room!

Posted by adicecream 10/25/2010 at 07:21 PM

My recollection is that Carillo's phrase big babe tennis was complimentary, or at worst, factual and neutral. And I don't believe she meant just the Williams sisters. It's about the tennis style of hard serves and groundstrokes, not just the players' sizes.

Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro, reigning World's no 1.1. 10/25/2010 at 07:25 PM

"Make every shot a power shot." LOL!

Posted by manuelsantanafan 10/25/2010 at 07:25 PM

grace, 6:47.

The Los Angeles Times doesn't appear to agree with your version of "big babe" history.

Los Angeles Times, Sept. 9, 1994

"The world's No. 5, Mary Pierce of France, drove them to the exits early in her quarterfinal Wednesday, losing to Novotna, 6-4, 6-0. In a recent article in Tennis magazine, network television announcer Mary Carillo, a former French Open mixed doubles champion, placed on Pierce the politically incorrect label, "Big Babe Tennis." Against Novotna, Pierce played big-bore tennis, then dismissed it as easily as flicking a fly off a tabletop."

Posted by grace 10/25/2010 at 07:46 PM

"Mary Carillo, a former French Open mixed doubles champion, placed on Pierce the politically incorrect label, "Big Babe Tennis." Against Novotna, Pierce played big-bore tennis..." If the label was viewed as politically incorrect in 1994 why did Mary Carillo continue to use it on the Williams sisters many years later? It seems to me that Carillo meant it in a negative way until Maria Sharapova came along! Interesting how the Los Angeles times changed it to big-bore tennis.

Posted by grace 10/25/2010 at 07:50 PM

You are right Smatha, thanks for the advice!!!

Posted by adicecream 10/25/2010 at 08:11 PM

The LA Times' saying that "big babe tennis" is politically incorrect does not make it so.

Not does it mean that Mary Carillo or anyone else should not or will not use the term.

Posted by Fudgecastle 10/25/2010 at 09:23 PM

The LA Times is demented.

Posted by Amoureux de tennis 10/25/2010 at 09:35 PM

Nice article Bobby. After reading Pete's tripe every week, this was a refreshing change. Agree with you on all things Vera.

Posted by Anna 10/25/2010 at 10:26 PM

I too am happy for Vera, and I would like her or Caro to win Doha.
If Kim were to win, it would again spark the discussion of the weak era in women's tennis, and how all these players do not deserve their ranking

Posted by Tim (Moonpies lead to violence!) 10/25/2010 at 10:37 PM

this has got to be the all time worst season ending field in WTA history ... lets be real here ...

imagine the days when Evert, Navratilova, Goolagong, Wade, King, etc. were all in the Virginia Slims Champsionships together in the 70s, holy cow, this is like beyond sad

even when Capriati, both Williams, Hingis, Davenport, etc., were playing togeher,is was great, but now? oh sad sad

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President.Yes Indeed I am A One Woman Show 10/26/2010 at 02:15 AM

Just reading Matt Cronins thoughts for Doha

May I say I think he is missing Sharapova already lol!

He gave a mixed opinion at this years end of championships and feels Caroline no 1 player and slamless really needs this win.

Well Matt according to the WTA present system it does reward players who play tournaments.Caroline has played many tournaments this year with good results and does deserve to be the no 1 player with or without a slam to her name at present.

Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro, reigning World's no 1.1. 10/26/2010 at 05:28 AM

Cronin along with other "objective" tennis experts such as fan boy Ted Robinson must be so sad that Maria is now engaged. What will they do? LOL There is no question that Caro deserves to be no l. The problem is that the player behind her(Serena) is clearly the best player in the game and the comparison will be made.

Posted by fowl ball 10/26/2010 at 07:55 AM

Thanks for an insightful article on Vera - too bad commentary in the US seems focused solely on 'meltdowns!' (x 1,000...Zzzzz...) She sounds like a smart, thoughtful person who keeps things in perspective. And she's got such an interesting, varied game which you don't see so much these days. As for the big babes, it's nice to see someone relatively average-sized who can also hit the sh*t out of the ball with the big girls, when necessary.

Posted by linz 10/26/2010 at 08:55 AM

Really loved this Bobby- so well-written. I especially liked how you associated her work ethic, emotions, and thoughtfulness all to her perfectionism- I hadn't ever thought of it like that, but it makes a lot of sense (and I can relate!).

I fell in love with Vera when she made it to the YEC finals 2 years ago, hopefully she can have a similarly grand run this year!

Posted by ndk 10/28/2010 at 11:22 PM

Nice read, Bobby! So true that the commentators fixate on one perceived interesting "fact-" Ana/swimming pool, Fish/weight loss, Vera/mental fragility etc.... Maybe the commentators will be more positive if she breaks through and wins the YEC!

Posted by TennisRone 1000 10/29/2010 at 01:57 PM

Wow......I was so in the clouds I had not even realized that Vera had elevated to #2 in the rankings. Congrats to her. It should be noted that she is pretty quick....and she uses this to her advantage to help and generate angles and try to out work some of her opponents. She's also a very consistent most matches.

When she does is quite epic......

Quite an accomplishment for a player who's been around many years and is surrounded by some highly talented players (some of which one could argue fit into the under-perorming bracket.....that does not include a Williams sister).

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