Vera Zvonareva rolls back the years in St Petersburg

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Nine years after reaching Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, Vera Zvonareva has put together a run to the semifinals at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy that may be just as special for the former-world #2. For though the indoor tournament in Russia’s second city may be far removed from the hallowed lawns of SW19 and the glamour of New York City, Zvonareva’s efforts this week will be a reminder, to her and the tennis world, of just how well she can play.

One made all the more stark by her virtual disappearance from the sport between 2013 and 2016. She was then confined to just a handful of appearances on tour due to injuries and motherhood. But she decided last season to attempt a serious comeback and she was not without her successes. At Wimbledon, she qualified into the main draw, her first appearance at the Championships since 2014, and acquitted herself well in a first-round defeat to eventual champion Angelique Kerber.

She also came through the qualifying at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow to reach the quarterfinals, defeating top-ten stalwart Karolina  Pliskova for the loss of just three games in the round of 16. Zvonareva carried that good form into the Shenzhen Open, her first tournament of 2019. She reached the semifinals, though she was forced to retire there trailing 0-6 0-1 to Christina McHale. But the Russian then fell to Astra Sharma 3-6 2-6 in the qualifying at Melbourne Park, a major disappointment.

But one she has put right in sterling fashion in front of the Russian fans in St Petersburg. In the first round she played superb tennis throughout, serving six aces to oust her compatriot Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets. She then compounded on 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Julia Goerges’ difficult start to the season, rallying from a set and a break down to earn a stunning 4-6 6-4 6-4 win over the fifth seed and a place in the quarterfinals.

There she faced ostensibly her toughest test of the tournament so far in the form of Daria Kasatkina, the third seed and Russian #1. But despite Kasatkina’s formidable pedigree, Zvonareva wasn’t to be denied. Taking the match to Kasatkina from the outset, she deservedly won the first set 6-3. And though Kasatkina raised her level in the second set, Zvonareva dug in before playing a wonderful tiebreak to complete a 6-3 7-6 win and secure a second semifinal berth already in 2019.

In order to reach a first singles final since October 2011, she will need to find a way to overcome Donna Vekic of Croatia, seeded eighth. Vekic has been in fine form herself, recovering from a disappointingly early exit at Melbourne Park to beat Timea Bacsinszky, Veronika Kudermetova and top seed Petra Kvitova en route to the last four. Her 6-4 6-1 demolition of a Kvitova fresh from reaching the Australian Open final was particularly impressive.

It may well prove a hurdle too far for Zvonareva, who looked to be tiring as the match wore on against Kasatkina before summoning one final effort to progress in straight sets. But even if she isn’t able to reach the title match, it has nonetheless been an excellent week for the Russian. Already back in the top 100 for the first-time since 2013, her results and, perhaps more so, her performances will surely have given her real confidence going forward.

Though 34 now, recent years have shown that success can still be had and new ground broken even late into a player’s fourth decade. Serena Williams continues to challenge for majors at 37. Venus Williams, who will turn 39 this year, remains a force in the game, albeit a diminished one. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2017, 18 years after achieving the same feat at Wimbledon. Kimiko Date, ranked 4th in the world in 1995, did not hang up her racquet until 2017.

So whilst the glory days of Zvonareva’s career are surely behind her, particularly with the young powerhouse Naomi Osaka looking set to dominate, there may well be chapters left to write in the Russian’s career. And from what she has shown this week in St Petersburg, the pages to come may be lined with trophies.

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