FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Vera Zvonareva fell over the edge in an emotional meltdown on Arthur Ashe Stadium last year. Today, Zvonareva successfully straddled the physical and emotional tightrope to march into the US Open semifinals. The seventh-seed Zvonareva swept Kaia Kanepi, 6-3, 7-5, to reach her second straight major semifinal.
Zvonareva has always been capable of hitting the high notes, but lately she’s been making her mark with a sustained level of play. What statement does her second straight major semifinal send?
“I’m still improving. I’ve been playing for a while, but I’m still out there and still working hard,” Zvonareva said. “That feels great. I can go out there, and I will try to work even more.”
The Wimbledon runner-up is now one win removed from reaching her first US Open final, but she may well have to beat top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki to get there.
Riding a 12-match winning streak, US Open Series champion Wozniacki plays 45th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova in tonight’s quarterfinal with the winner meeting Zvonareva in the semifinals.
“I know both players and I’m sure it will be a great match,” said Zvonareva, who has won all 10 sets she’s played in the tournament. “It’s gonna be tough match for both of them tonight. I don’t know who’s gonna win yet, Caroline or Dominika. If it’s Caroline, she’s playing great tennis at the moment. She’s been so consistent this year and won a few tournaments in a row. She’s very tough opponent. We played few times and we always had tough matches. I’m expecting a very tough one in the semifinal. And even if Dominika wins, we just played a three setter like few weeks ago. It was a very tough one. No matter who’s going through it, it’s gonna be a tough challenge, and I’m up to it.”
Former US Open finalist Novak Djokovic calls Arthur Ashe Stadium the toughest Grand Slam stage in tennis because of the swirling winds that can making hitting through the wind a task as easy trying to squeeze a shot through a chan-link fence.
World No. 32 Kanepi managed both the conditions and her mind in defeating 2008 finalist Jelena Jankovic in the round of 32 before edging 2009 semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, 0-6, 7-6(2), 6-1. But Kanepi clanked shots into the net and beyond the baseline today.
“It was blowing in every way,” Kanepi said. “When I played against Jelena, it was the same thing so I was a little used to it. But today was tough. I just didn’t find the rhythm and the control of the ball.”
Zvonareva presented a different challenge for Kanepi in that while she lacks a major weapon she can hit every shot from virtually any position on the court. Hitting with plenty of margin for errors, Zvonareva shrewdly played with enough aggression to engage the explosive Estonian, but did not over play.
“I was trying to make it as difficult as possible for her,” Zvonareva said. “With those conditions, well, unforced errors, it looks like it’s an easy shot. But with the wind going all the different directions and blowing, it’s not easy to make those shots. So sometimes you have to make the right choices. I think today I made, you know, right choices where I had just to, you know, put the ball in play and where sometimes I had to step up a little bit and do a little bit more with the ball.”
That measured tactical approach gave Kanepi just enough rope to hang her hopes with 60 unforced errors, including nine double faults.
“Sometimes we had some ridiculous rallies,” Zvonareva said. “I was putting all effort to hang in there no matter the conditions. In these conditions the most important thing is to find the right balance between being aggressive and being patient and keep the ball in play and go for your shots.”
There was a time when major match pressure constricted Zvonareva like an emotional strait jacket as she dissolved in sobs and smashed rackets in past majors. Laast September, Zvonareva blew six match points in imploding in a painful loss to Flavia Pennetta at the 2009 US Open. She sat down on the court looking as disconsolate as a kindergarten kid denied recess, ripped at the adhesive tape wrapped around her leg and slapped at thigh repeatedly in imploding last year.
The woman who spends changeovers with a towel draped over her head to block out external distractions was focused from the first ball today.
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.