You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t tuned into Eurosport Russia recently, but if you’ve been following their Wimbledon coverage during the fortnight, you’ll likely recognize a familiar voice calling the action.
Vera Zvonareva has held many titles over the years – World No.2, two-time Grand Slam finalist, 12-time WTA title winner, wife, mother and commentator – but she’s just earned a brand new one: Master’s graduate, after completing an M.S. in Global Studies & Political Science through a previous agreement between Northeastern University and the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association.
“I already had one degree, from the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow,” Zvonareva told wtatennis.com via phone interview. “That was a Bachelor’s degree, so I wanted to continue with my education while I was on the road and expand my knowledge in this sphere. But then, you know, things changed with my injuries and then I became a mom but still I didn’t want to give it up. I still wanted to finish it.
“I was doing it slowly. Many students take two or three classes a semester – I was taking one class a semester. Otherwise I wouldn’t have time to complete it.”
Struggles with injuries throughout her career caused the Russian to think about life after tennis early on, and Zvonareva, who has always had a passion for learning, pursued higher education as a way to focus her mind and also distract herself from the grind of tennis life.
“I graduated from the University of Physical Education first at 23 or 24. And I was talking to one of my friends and he mentioned about the Diplomatic Academy.
“He asked me, “Why don’t you want to get a degree in International Economic Relations? You travel so much, you know so much about the world from your own experience - why don’t you continue in this field and learn about it from a different angle?” And I thought, “Why not? I will try.”
A six-month injury layoff in 2007 provided the perfect opportunity for Zvonareva to start the program. Even when she started competing again, going on to reach back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010, Zvonareva continued her studies.
The cyclical nature of the WTA tour – visiting the same cities year after year – left her longing for a break from the tennis courts.
“I was not that kind of person that would go out and do a lot of sightseeing. I would go out, do some sightseeing one day, but next year at the same tournament I would not do it again.
“We travel to the same tournaments every year. For me it was like, ‘Okay, third year on the tour? I’ve seen it all. It’s done, I need to do something else in my free time.’
“So I felt like I could use it for something different. I can keep myself busy, read a lot of books, and keep studying.”
In between practice sessions, matches and travel, she’s amassed three degrees – but you won’t see her gunning for a seat on the Duma anytime soon.
Much like her slow return to professional tennis, her commentating and her number of side projects, Zvonareva’s pursuit of higher education is something she does for herself, for the joy of it.
But juggling a Master’s degree while on the far flung reaches of the tour was an especially difficult challenge that required planning ahead; Zvonareva recalls having to negotiate patchy internet access in China, purchasing textbooks up to three months before the start of a course and having to carry them around country after country.
The former World No.2 is one of several WTA players who’ve gone through the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association to obtain college degrees. She’s the second Master’s graduate after Vladimira Uhlirova, while the likes of Venus Williams, Irina Falconi and Alla Kudryavtseva have all achieved Bachelor’s degrees through the Women's Tennis Benefits Association’s current partnership with Indiana University East.
For up-and-coming players starting out on tour, finding the balance between competition, travel, training and media attention can be tough. But once they get settled into life on the road, Zvonareva says, they tend to start thinking of “other options” outside of tennis.
“You start thinking about what’s to follow after you finish your career,” she said. “And I think that’s when players decide to pursue a degree.
“Maybe they’ll understand that they have other options, as well. It’s not that they have to get into coaching or stay in tennis after tennis. Some people want to stay in tennis, but not everyone. Some people want to do something else, and they can understand that they’ll have the opportunity if they have this degree.”
Zvonareva herself has been happily pursuing other options – apart from her studies, she’s an avid runner, regular commentator for Eurosport Russia, and mother to one-year-old Evelyn – but always finds herself coming back to tennis.
The Russian recently returned to competition after being invited to participate at an ITF 25K in Fergana, Uzbekistan. She qualified for the main draw and posted a 6-0, 6-0 win over a local player – but the victory was bittersweet.
“I know what I’m capable of and I know what level I was able to play at before. And now, going on the court you feel like you’re ten levels behind compared to where you were before. So you’re kind of like, “Well, that’s not so much fun when I’m not playing so well!”
“But at the same time it was still fun, you know? I was still in the competition - I was warming up, I was preparing, all those feelings were coming back. You have a real linesman and ball boys. So it was fun.
“And part of that great experience is that I went to a country that I’ve never been to before, and I met a lot of my fans there. A lot of ball girls and ball boys were coming to me and they wanted to take a picture, asking me to hit a ball or two with them, and it was a pleasure for me.”
A series of injuries and aborted comebacks effectively halted her professional career, with her most recent WTA match taking place at the Katowice Open in 2015. Despite her occasional forays into ITF events, Zvonareva feels no urge to rush a comeback, preferring instead to enjoy the sport on her own terms.
“With a little baby, I’m not yet ready to dedicate myself 100% to it, and if I want to be back playing on the tour I definitely need to dedicate myself to my job, to tennis. I need to get back in perfect shape and practice a lot every day. I’m not there yet at this point, I would say. Probably not for the next six months, but we’ll see. If I feel like I still want to play tennis, I’ll give it a shot.
“But if I feel like I’m not ready to come back, then I will just be playing tennis for my own joy. Because I love tennis, I love the game.
“Tennis gave me a lot, and I want to stay active and keep playing just for myself, even if it’s just practicing and maybe sometimes playing some small tournaments just for fun.”