As Caroline Wozniacki hit her final forehand into the net, Vera Zvonareva took another major step to banishing her US Open demons.
Rewind just over 12 months, and Zvonareva led by a set to love against Flavia Pennetta. Having seen six match points come and go, we saw the perfect example of why she was viewed as a potentially wasted talent. Her mental fragility and emotions came to the surface once again as she flung her racket across the court, ripped at the bandages supporting her knees, and broke into tears on the court. She went on to lose the tiebreak, and lost the final set 6-0.
Back to today, Zvonareva marches into the final, still without dropping a set in the tournament. She has a monumental task ahead of her in the final as she meets the queen of Flushing Meadows, Kim Clijsters, who has racked up 20 consecutive victories in this tournament, having won it all in 2005 and 2009.
But there has never been a better chance for Vera Zvonareva. She will go into the final full of confidence, and has had a wonderful second half of 2010, reaching the final at Wimbledon and Montreal, as well as the final here.
An interesting thing to note ahead of this final is that the two have played twice in the last couple of months. Zvonareva shocked Clijsters in the quarterfinal at Wimbledon in three sets, before going on to beat her again in Montreal last month. The victory in the quarterfinal in Montreal was significant as she became only the third player to beat Clijsters on a hard court since her return to tennis.
The experience of the Wimbledon final should help to stand Zvonareva in good stead for this match. She was somewhat overawed by the occasion, and came up against Serena Williams—the dominant force in the women’s game at the moment. A 6-3, 6-2 defeat was disappointing, but the experience of having played in a Grand Slam final will have helped.
One thing that has marked Zvonareva’s game this year is an improved mental stability. Her US Open experience last year was a watershed moment. It was hardly an isolated event—tantrums, broken rackets, and tears were regular happenings in her matches, particularly when she was under pressure. However, these appear to be a thing of the past.
During her match against top seed Caroline Wozniacki, she coped admirably with the freak event of breaking four strings—virtually unheard of in the modern era. It almost left her without enough rackets to finish the match. Only a year ago, this would surely have been the cue for a collapse. Not today though—her coach threw a racket down from the box for her to use until her restrung rackets reappeared from the stringer. She did not let it faze her, and continued on her serene progress to the final.
Less than a month ago, she suffered a straight sets defeat to Caroline Wozniacki in the final in Montreal. She learned from that, and her tactics last night were executed to perfection. She targeted the weaker forehand of the Dane, and repeatedly charged the net to negate Wozniacki’s relentless retrieving from the baseline. Wozniacki was under pressure in almost every service game. And it was Zvonareva who adapted best to the challenging conditions. There was no element of fluke about this result.
However, she faces a huge challenge in Kim Clijsters. As has been mentioned, Clijsters has a phenomenal record at the US Open, and a victory in the final would take her to fifth place on the longest winning streaks at the US Open.
She battled hard against a surprisingly consistent Venus Williams last night, and produced a few magical moments when it mattered most. The final break of serve by Clijsters saw some magnificent shots—a backhand pass down the line started the game off impressively, and the lob that confirmed the break was a beauty to behold.
Clijsters will start as a big favourite in the final, and rightly so. She is the woman to beat on the hard courts. But Zvonareva has proved that she can. She is in impressive form, and her confidence is high.
As she says, “I always believe I can beat anyone on the other side of the net if I’m able to play my best tennis.” And maybe she is right. But can she cope with the pressure of the big occasion.
Whilst the mental breakdowns may be a thing of the past, being able to produce your best tennis on the big stage is another thing. Clijsters will bring her A-game to the court—whether Zvonareva can match it will go a long way to determining who finally lifts the title.