Editor's note: Six days after the original publication of this story, Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund crowned their season with a WTA Finals championship. Here's a look back at Zvonareva's unexpected return to the top of the game and the duo's path to success.
CANCUN, Mexico -- Last March, Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund won the doubles title at the Miami Open.
And then Zvonareva, a 37-year-old mother contemplating a move to Dubai with her family -- and suffering from a chronically aching right shoulder -- told her partner she was done for the season.
Earlier this year, long after Siegemund had moved on and committed to playing with Kirsten Flipkens, Zvonareva asked, almost sheepishly, if she wanted to renew their partnership.
What changed ahead of the GNP Seguro WTA Finals?
Siegemund, sitting next to Zvonareva for the interview, interjected, “Yeah, that’s what I want to know.”
The answer, like the tale of Zvonareva’s long and winding career in professional tennis, is not a simple one. She never announced her retirement, but when she gave birth to daughter Evelina in 2016, then suffered through a number of aborted comebacks, Zvonareva was “90 percent” certain last year that she was done.
Spoiler alert: Zvonareva, now 39 -- four years older than any other qualifier here in Cancun -- is ranked No.16 in doubles. That’s her highest ranking in 17 years. A few months ago, she and Siegemund, finalists at the recent US Open, weren’t even in the year-end conversation. Now they’re the No.6 seeds.
In terms of tennis, Zvonareva has already lived through several generations. When she turned professional in 2000, fellow qualifiers Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff were not yet born. When Zvonareva made the Wimbledon and US Open singles finals in 2010, she was defeated, respectively, by Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams. The field at the WTA Finals in Doha that year included Zvonareva, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva -- and a 21-year-old Victoria Azarenka.
In an era when former No.1-ranked Ashleigh Barty can retire at 25, how is it possible that Zvonareva is still a viable, relevant player at the highest reaches of the game at 39?
“I love the sport,” she said. “And I always have this kind of perfectionism in me. When I start doing something, I want to do it the best way I can. Obviously, the way I look at tennis now, it’s very much different from when I looked at it when I was 20. I’m much more relaxed in many, many things.
“If I lose the match, it doesn’t hurt me so much because I know I gave it all. And I think that’s what kind of helps me at my age to continue with my career because I enjoy the moment. And I think at the end of the day, you have some wins and that motivates you to come back and try again.”
The rest of the doubles field marvels at Zvonareva’s longevity.
“Passion,” said Demi Schuurs.
“Dedication,” echoed her partner, Desirae Krawczyk. “You love to compete, you love to be on tour. But it’s making sacrifices. She’s doing it for her daughter, she’s doing it for herself. It’s amazing, actually.”
An instant connection
Zvonareva finished that watershed season in 2010 as the No.2-ranked singles player in the world. She was a fixture at the WTA Finals, qualifying four times from 2004-11, reaching the final in 2008 before losing to Venus Williams.
There was a robust doubles schedule early in her career, finishing in the Top 10 in 2006, but she gradually began to focus on singles. And then, injuries began to accumulate, most notably her right shoulder.
She picked up her fourth major doubles title at the 2012 Australian Open but limped through the season and achieved her goal of appearing in the Olympics for Russia. Zvonareva underwent surgery in 2013 and was never again an effective singles player.
Zvonareva got married in 2015 and gave birth to her daughter in 2016.
“After that,” she said, “I was never planning on coming back.”
But the draw of the game proved irresistible. She played a modest singles schedule in 2017 and over the next three years, mixing in some doubles as well.
In 2020, Zvonareva played four tournaments with three different doubles partners -- before deciding to pair, for the first time, with Siegemund for the US Open.
“I can remember that pretty well,” the 35-year-old Siegemund said. “We won.”
It was the first major title for Siegemund and the fifth for Zvonareva.
Injuries, on both sides, and life in general prevented them from putting together a cohesive campaign. And when Zvonareva, suffering from a debilitating Achilles injury, stepped away after they took the Miami title last year, that appeared to be the end.
At this point in the narrative, Zvonareva and Siegemund started to sound like an old married couple, interrupting and finishing each other’s sentences. Siegemund, who was curious and genuinely didn’t know critical parts of Zvonareva’s narrative, took over the reporter’s role and launched a spirited Q&A.
Siegemund, who wanted a permanent partner, began 2023 with Flipkens. But at home in Dubai, Zvonareva was invited to a January pro-am exhibition. Thinking nothing of it, she accepted.
“I was living there and he asked me -- how can you blame me for saying yes?” Zvonareva said. “I thought, `Wow, I just have to see.’”
“And then,” Siegemund said, “you crushed it. And you were like, `Hey, remember me?’”
Their first 2023 tournament was Miami, where they were defending champions. They lost their second match. But then they reached the semifinals in Charleston and won a WTA 125 in Paris before it all began to gel. They advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, won the title in Washington, D.C. and made the finals at the US Open.
And now, they’re in Cancun. For Zvonareva, it’s a back-to-the-future moment; her first (and only) doubles appearance at year-end came in 2005 with Elena Likhovtseva.
“Wow,” said Katerina Siniakova, who teamed with Barbora Krejcikova to win this year’s Australian Open. “It’s amazing that she feels healthy and she’s playing so well.”
Could she see herself playing at 39?
“No,” Siniakova answered.
Siegemund always knew she and Zvonareva played well together -- on the occasions they were able to play.
“When we were able, yes, we did decent at a minimum,” Siegemund said. “And I knew that if we could have a whole year, for me, the finals would always be your goal with that.
“I’m happy we finally got here.”