This week, WTA Tour star Vania King called time on a brilliant career after playing her final professional match at the Volvo Car Open.
The American burst on to the scene at the 2005 US Open, where as a 16-year-old qualifier ranked World No.721 she upset Klara Koukalova to reach the second round. King went on to a career high of No.50 in singles, winning her first title at Bangkok 2006 and reaching two more finals, at Guangzhou 2013 and Nanchang 2016.
But it was in doubles that King excelled. She won 15 career titles, reached a career high of No.3 and contested four Grand Slam finals. Her greatest successes came alongside Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova, with whom she captured both the Wimbledon and US Open titles in 2010.
Appropriately, King and Shvedova reunited for King's final tournaments, in Miami and Charleston this year. Both of their lives have changed since they charmed SW19 as ebullient twentysomethings more than a decade ago. Shvedova is now the mother of 2-year-old twins, Mirka and Stan, and has recently returned to action following maternity leave. King, who also gained an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in nonprofit management while on tour, will be focusing on charitable endeavours, particularly her work with Barefoot Law and WTA Charities to spearhead a tennis and legal aid youth clinic in Uganda.
In a wide-ranging virtual interview with wtatennis.com in Charleston this week, the pair sat down to talk memories, friendship, culture and more.
So, how did it feel to be back on court together for the first time in four years?
Shvedova: For me, it felt unbelievably great. I didn't feel we had so many years not being on court, we just jumped in. It was like just yesterday we'd won Wimbledon and the US Open. In Miami we were sharing energy on court, and it was a great feeling. I hope she can continue for another year - at least with me!
King: This is definitely my last tournament [laughs]. Slava has asked me to play more, but I don't think so. No. I'm emotionally ready to retire.
I was ready last year. I was supposed to retire in Charleston last year, but then Covid hit. It threw a wrench in everyone's plans, and I didn't know what to do for a long time. Then I decided to play just the tournaments I missed - Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. Indian Wells and Miami are like home tournaments to me. I grew up in L.A. and I live in Boca now. And Charleston is also kind of a home tournament. We come back every year, we have great friends here and visit them - not just at the tournament but for vacations. So it's a home away from home. So for sentimental reasons, these tournaments are very important to me, but I don't think I would have come back to play them if I didn't have Slava on the court with me.
In 2010, you won Wimbledon as unseeded outsiders. What are your memories of that dream run?
King: Oh my gosh, it was a rollercoaster. We only started playing together two weeks before Wimbledon. Slava had her bags stolen the week before, so she had two generic racquets she'd bought at the pro shop. She didn't even have a racquet bag. We went out on the middle Saturday and we met this group of ballerinas from the Royal Ballet School close to Wimbledon who were having a graduation party, and we invited them to the tennis.
Remember, we didn't have any expectations we would get that far. The most important thing for us is that we had fun. We were really gelling on and off the court. We were just relaxed and happy. At every subsequent match, we had more and more ballet dancers coming to watch. In the final, we had a full box of about 20 people, having just gone there with a couple of team members.
Shvedova: And it started with Vania asking to play doubles for the grass season only. Because she knew I'm a big girl, big serve, I play fast, so maybe it would be easier for her to get some points with me.
King: It definitely was.
Shvedova: So we started the first tournament in Birmingham, we did the semifinals. Then in 's-Hertogenbosch, we did the final. After that final I said, look, it's getting gradually better. We did semifinals, final, so we're going to win the next one. It was a joke, but it came true.
Did you already know each other well before you teamed up?
King: We played juniors together.
Shvedova: Last week we were trying to count how many years we've known each other and when actually we met. It's been 17 years.
King: More than half our lives.
When did you first meet?
King: I remember a different time to Slava. I remember in Italy, it was a Grade 4 junior event, and we played against each other in the doubles final. She remembers the Italian Open junior event, a bigger tournament.
Shvedova: We also became friends because we were both travelling with our fathers. So we had something in common - our fathers are difficult! They were fathers and coaches at the same time, so it was hard in many ways. Instead of hanging out or going to school and enjoying our lives, our fathers were pushing us to practice. Sometimes we couldn't be pushed any more, but they were still pushing.
King: We were honest with other, open with each other and supported each other as teenagers, and we did that as doubles partners as well. We've hung out. Covid has made it tough, and also her kids have made it tough, but we've travelled and gone on vacation. This is not a partnership that's just on court.
Shvedova: It feels like our energies and our characters match each other, complement each other. We have a good time, we're not annoying each other ...
King: Well, I annoy her a little bit. I'm the hyper one, and she's the more calm one.
How did you bond off court over the years?
King: Well ... we went out a lot [laughs]. The last vacation we did together was Oktoberfest, so we also went out a lot during that one too. Whenever we're together, we have a lot of fun. We do whatever we want. We sightsee, we go to restaurants.
Going to the pub in the middle of Wimbledon led to one of your greatest successes, though.
King: OK, that is true. In all fairness, it was the World Cup. So we had to go to the pub, right?
Your friendship has also remained strong even after your doubles partnership ended, which isn't always the case.
King: The reason we first split up was because of the Olympics. Slava had to play with someone else. Then for the next five or six years, I struggled a lot with injuries, and Slava struggled a bit off and on as well.
Shvedova: When she was injured, I was playing. Then when she came back, I was injured. And then while she was injured, I'd committed to someone else and I couldn't cancel it. It's a lot of complications.
King: Then she had kids. But whatever was going on, we always know we have each other's backs. No matter what, we're always there for each other. I think!
Shvedova: I'm happy to have had the great period which gave us success and two Slams, the first at Wimbledon where the history of tennis started. You cannot erase it. Even if we played well afterwards or not, it doesn't matter because we still have it. Like Vania said, we have each other's backs, and we go on with our lives now starting different chapters. Hopefully we can continue to be very good friends, and meet and create new things. And die one day.
King: Hand in hand, die together.
Shvedova: Like in the stories [laughs].
Have you visited each other's home towns? What did you do to show the other around?
Shvedova: I've visited Vania's house in a few different places; she's always been moving. But Vania still hasn't had the chance to come to Kazakhstan or Spain, where I've recently moved.
King: I promise it's on the list. It was on the list, then Covid happened. Once things open up. And once I retire, I'll be free.
Shvedova: It's easier to stay at Vania's because it's on the way to the tournaments. She invited me to stay with her during Miami, but we had to stay in the bubble. Unfortunately my home is not on the tour.
King: I was living in Boynton when she first visited me. At the time Florida was not so appealing to me. We'd just go to restaurants and bars. Now I have more time and Florida's got a lot better since I first moved. I'd take her to hiking trails and lakes like the Intercoastal Waterway, maybe out for a boat ride. But back then we were pretty boring, I have to say.
Slava, if Vania was to visit Kazakhstan, where would you take her?
Shvedova: We have a very great place I'd like to take her. It's called Burabay, it's two hours away from Nur-Sultan. It's a beautiful national park, we should go there in the summer. They have lakes, forests, mountains, all the wildlife. I know how Vania likes nature so it's the first place I would take her.
King: I'm really excited already. I didn't even know about this.
Shvedova: It was going to be a surprise!
You come from very different backgrounds. Slava, born and raised near Moscow, the daughter of Russian athletes; Vania, growing up in California, the child of immigrants from Chinese Taipei. What bridged the cultural gap for you, and what have you learned from each other?
King: I think the Asian culture and Russian culture are similar in some ways. They're both quite conservative.
Shvedova: And cold.
King: Not open. Especially with parents. Asians and Eastern Europeans are not always very talkative.
Shvedova: Yeah. It's like we're taking the emotions out of things. But I think we can say that Vania taught me to be more open, and I taught Vania to be more, I don't know, stable?
King: More relaxed. I mean, I don't know if that's cultural or not. A lot of it is just personality. I grew up in a family of six and we were all just really loud. At home we could be loud, and we'd all just talk over each other. Slava's the first person to tell me that - I still do it to this day, but now she's told me I think about it more - but I interrupt people. If you're talking, I'll be like, "No no no, I've gotta get my point across!" It's because at home, whoever's the loudest wins. So I just cut people off and talk over them.
Shvedova: Which is really annoying, yeah.
I have to ask about Slava's golden set. Vania, do you remember where you were when you first heard she'd done it?
King: I was at Wimbledon. Were we playing together?
Shvedova: No , it was 2012. Olympic year. I was playing with Galina [Voskoboeva].
King: Well, I was there. And it didn't surprise me. Slava is probably the most talented player I've ever met. She made some golden sets off me in practice; it's just that no one ever saw.
We've talked about how you both found parental pressure hard. Slava, how has this affected your own approach to motherhood?
Shvedova: My parents were professional athletes as well. My father was the coach of my mum [Nurzia Bogmanova], and she was travelling a lot. So from this point of view, I think I'm more relaxed about travelling without my kids.
King: Her mother was an ultra-marathon world champion, you know, 100km.
Shvedova: I'm less nervous about leaving the twins alone, because I grew up the same way. My father was taking care of me while my mother was travelling for competitions. Some things I would change with my kids, but it's always the case that generations are getting better after the experience of previous generations.
I was asking my mum, how did she teach me to be independent? But at the same time, I know I grew up very fast. I was travelling internationally when I was 13, and I was travelling alone sometimes. So I needed to be a grown person already - not to miss the train or the flight, to count money. I want my kids to be independent, but at the same time to have a longer childhood to enjoy.
Vania, how has your life experience influenced your charity work?
King: When I was younger, I don't want to say I was thoughtful, but I was thinking a lot. I realised at a young age that helping other people was fulfilling to me. It felt good to me to give back.
You asked about our cultural differences, but in many ways we were very similar. These nomads who travel a lot and don't really settle down. Tennis is a very unique, niche bubble. And in that regard, as we travel a lot we get to see other cultures, meet other people, expand our horizons. It may not change what we believe is right or wrong, but it helps us understand that there are other points of view out there.
It also helped me realise that we are very privileged, I am very privileged. Being a professional tennis player is very difficult in some ways, but just having the opportunity to do what I want to do is a privilege in itself. With the specific work I do, my tennis history has definitely helped me realise that there are people out there who obviously don't have the opportunities we had. And I feel that is unfair. They're just as qualified, just as smart, if not more so.
So why me? I haven't been able to answer that question. So I'm going to try my best to help other people have opportunities.
How do you want to be remembered on tour? And how will you remember each other?
King: Vainly, I want to be remembered for being a really good tennis player. I always thought I was very talented and could beat anybody, I just didn't have consistency. Which is a mirror to my life. But the most important is that people remember me for being respectful on and off the court. Sportsmanship was important to me. It's not as important to - well, I mean, everyone has their own level of what they believe is correct. It was important to me to communicate properly on and off the court. I hope players remember that.
Shvedova: She's like a dragon on the court. She'll be remembered as great player, a very nice person and a very good singer. For me, she's my best friend, and I think she's a best friend for many of the girls on tour.
I think when I retire, people will remember my golden set. I hope it stays like this in history and no one beats me!
King: I would remember - and this is the general consensus, because people talk - Slava as being an incredible athlete, an incredibly talented tennis player and a very sweet, generous, kind person.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.