The Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies boasts an incredible field as the tour heads into the US Open, the final Grand Slam of the season. One name stands out from the others, and you can find her battling for a spot in the main draw this weekend.
Earlier this season, former World No.2 Vera Zvonareva began playing tournaments after nearly two years away from tennis, time she spent as only the cerebral Russian would, getting married, having her first child, and earning yet another Master's degree - all in between healing injuries. The two-time Grand Slam finalist kicked her return into high gear when she accepted a wildcard into New Haven’s qualifying draw, her first WTA tournament since 2015.
“I made the decision at the last moment, because I was getting in shape and practicing, and I felt like I needed to play some matches,” Zvonareva told WTA Insider on Thursday. “It’s one thing to practice, but another to be playing matches. I got this opportunity to come here, getting the wildcard to New Haven. It’s great to be back, practicing on main courts and getting ready for a tournament.
“We’ll see how it goes, because I don’t have too many other plans beyond US Open qualifying. From there, I’ll head back home to see my little one, and we’ll see what happens after.”
Zvonareva last played New Haven in 2003, the year she made her major breakthrough at Roland Garros, where she stunned then-No.2 Venus Williams en route to the quarterfinals.
“It’s a great event. I don’t know why, but I guess it used to be too difficult for me to play right before a Grand Slam, and it never worked out for me to come here after the first time. I’ve had great memories from this event; the campus has a lot of history, being such a big university. The place and atmosphere is very nice. I’ve been here two days now and I’m really enjoying my time.”
That enjoyment is admittedly tempered by the absence of her family, husband Alexander and daughter Evelyn. Traveling with hitting partner Kirill Komarov, the 32-year-old is reluctant to call this a comeback, planning a slate of tournaments that lets her balance professional tennis and motherhood.
“I’m still processing, playing, and I want to see how I feel. That’s why I wanted to come here, so I could play and see how I feel playing against girls on this level, which is higher than at ITF events. Only then can I truly assess myself, but of course, being away from family has been difficult. I know it’ll be even more difficult if and when they start coming with me. Evelyn is still too little and it will take too much energy from me, running around after her all day long!
“When you’re playing tournaments, sometimes you want to play three or four in a row to get your groove and get good practice with other girls. But at the moment, I can’t do that. After one week, I want to go back home to see and play with her. I have to plan my schedule, and probably play a limited number of tournaments. If I feel like my body is ready, and that I can put all my effort into it, then maybe I can plan for a fuller schedule. As of this moment, it’s still a little difficult for me.”
A fortnight removed from the seven-year anniversary of her run to the US Open final, the Russian remains in awe of Kim Clijsters, who brought daughter Jada on court to celebrate her second straight victory in Flushing Meadows, but draws few comparisons to the Belgian’s journey back to the top.
“I think Kim took the time to take care of Jada when she was very little, and that was very important for her. That helped her be able to make an unbelievable comeback and play some great tennis. Kim’s such a great champion who was very talented, but I know how difficult that life was for her and that not everyone is able to do the same.
“I just miss the game, and the competition, playing against top players. I want to give it a shot, play a few events, and see how it goes. When Evelyn gets older, I can definitely start bringing her to some events.”
Patience has been key for Zvonareva, who captured a 15K Challenger title in Sharm-El-Sheikh the same week former rivals like Venus competed at Wimbledon.
“Everything is a bit difficult, because when you go on the court, you want to play at the same level as before. But it’s not something that happens overnight, and you can practice all day long, but matches are so different. I played a few smaller events where I felt like I was far away from the game I know I can play.
“There were moments where I was playing very good tennis, but only for a few points. The rest, I felt like I could do much better, but I wasn’t able to produce that level in the match. I know it’ll take some time.”
Motherhood has undoubtedly introduced new perspective, one the famously demonstrative Zvonareva aims to apply to her first match in New Haven.
“It might be a little soon to tell, because I haven’t played big matches at WTA events yet. I think those feelings will be different, but my family is the most important part of my life at the moment. My tennis is probably not as important, and it’s a little different because when you go on the court, you have all this experience from playing so many matches.
“I’m playing more for myself because I like the sport, competing, and I enjoy my time on the court. When you’re younger, I think you take everything too seriously. That can be, well, very difficult!”
High stakes as those big matches may be, they’re ultimately what brought Zvonareva back to tennis, the opportunity to be back at her best - and under the spotlight - once more.
“Playing at small ITF events, there aren’t many spectators, and sometimes those events can just be you, your opponent, and two coaches, and no one else around!
“Here, I’ll play against top players in our sport, on big courts in front of big fans. I know that the fans are incredible in New Haven. They like tennis, and I think that’s probably the biggest excitement, getting that chance to play in front of fans again.”
Zvonareva plays her first round of New Haven qualifying against Anastasia Rodionova on Friday.