terrrific article about HOFer Zvereva and my favourite American tournament,
that wonderful green clay on Daniel Island in Charleston
When Freedom Rang: Natasha Zvereva and the Family Circle Cup
By Bobby Chintapalli - Monday, April 2, 2012
Zvereva gave anything but a typical runner-up speech at the 1989 Family Circle Cup.
Even Bud Collins fell silent when Natasha Zvereva blurted out what she did at the Family Circle Cup final 23 years ago.
It was supposed to be your usual trophy ceremony. A few words by the winner, fewer by the loser, pictures, trophies, checks. But that last one—the $24,000 runner-up check she got after losing to Steffi Graf in the 1989 final—proved too much for Zvereva to bear. She held it up and said, per Collins, “This is nothing. It is just paper.”
This, of course, was something. It was big news that Zvereva had dared to reveal and complain on national television about the Soviet Tennis Federation taking all her prize money. The federation gave the 17-year-old a stipend for living expenses, but what she wanted was what she earned and, yes, also a red Mercedes.
What Zvereva did all those years ago—back when she was ‘Natalia’ and months before the birth of another top player born in Minsk, Victoria Azarenka—helped pave the way for the likes of Azarenka and celebrity/industry Maria Sharapova, top players who are also millionaires. Soon after that final, Zvereva became the first player to part with the federation and request direct payment of her earnings. Eventually other Soviet players no longer had to send home all their earnings.
“Zvereva was the Mother Freedom of Soviet tennis,” said Collins by phone last week.
Before that day he and Zvereva had discussed such matters off air. Prior to the match Collins and fellow NBC commentator Dick Enberg had joked that Zvereva should say, “Where’s my money?” Yet Collins didn’t expect the words Zvereva spoke into the microphone. “In the presentation I said, ‘How much of this money are you going to keep?’ And she said, ‘Nothing! They just pay our expenses, and I want the money!’ I had no idea that she was going to sound off like that, but she was deadly serious. That was a big start.”
The unhappiness with the way of things, with her struggle for what others received without asking, had been bubbling under the surface. But that day something made it bubble over. Perhaps Zvereva had the right platform; after all, she was going to be interviewed on TV, no matter the score. Partly Zvereva credited fellow Hall-of-Famer Collins. How to explain the rest of what happened amidst the pine trees on Hilton Head Island, where the Family Circle Cup got its start?
Last week Zvereva explained by email from Belarus: “I am a spontaneous and emotional human being. It was The Day and it was The Time.”
She wasn’t surprised her words drew attention—there were newspaper headlines, nightly news stories and Charlie Gibson interviews—as “anything Soviet was interesting enough, especially a little more provocative.” Even then she knew it was a big deal: “It was and is the biggest deal for me, period. Very dramatic and courageous. Fight for freedom, if you will.”
It was perhaps the most momentous event at a tournament with a long history. When it started in 1973, the Family Circle Cup was the first women’s tournament to offer $100,000 in prize money and the first broadcast on network TV. Family Circle magazine is the longest-running title sponsor in pro tennis worldwide and among all sports in America.
Chris Evert ruled the event for years, winning eight titles in all. Gabriela Sabatini made her pro debut there. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario played it 16 straight years. Venus Williams won the title on her first outing, while Caroline Wozniacki proved third time’s the charm. Every Open era No. 1 save Kim Clijsters has played at the Family Circle Cup.
It’s where the longest-serving No. 1, Graf, announced herself. In 1986 she won her first pro title here. “Evert had owned that tournament, but Graf kept coming from behind to win the title,” said Collins. “And nobody at that point, except people very close to tennis, had any idea who Steffi Graf was. She took off there and kept on going.”
The tournament has kept on going too, despite ups and downs. You could call it a survivor. Pete Bodo does. He covered the event more than 10 years, mostly when it was on Hilton Head Island and the few years it was on Amelia Island, to write about Billie Jean King, Evert and others; he spent time with Graf and her father over a few days there for his first big Graf profile.
“Tennis was still very U.S.-centric,” said Bodo. “At that time the European circuit wasn’t that big a deal, and the French Open wasn’t that big a deal. Hilton Head was the big spring clay event. Everybody who was anybody played it.” These days, of course, the European circuit and French Open matter more. “Charleston to some degree has kept its place, because it is a big clay tournament for here,” Bodo added. “You look at the genealogy and the chronology, and there’s a thread that runs through it all, and that’s why I call it a survivor.”
Still one of the best-known WTA-only tournaments but now a Premier 700, the Family Circle Cup field cannot include more than two of the top six players. This is why Wozniacki, who eventually decided she wanted to play this year, wasn’t allowed to enter.
But the 2012 field includes big names, the Williams sisters the biggest among them, and also Sam Stosur and Jelena Jankovic. In addition, a big event celebrating the tournament’s 40th anniversary will bring together the Original 9—King and eight others who launched the women’s tour—and top former players like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and John McEnroe; and also South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and WTA CEO Stacey Allaster.
The youngest players in the 2012 field weren’t even born 23 years ago, when Zvereva did what she did. And for more than a decade the tournament has been in Charleston, where a show court was renamed after another tennis pioneer, Althea Gibson, on whose court youngsters like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 20, and Sloane Stephens, 19, can play without regard to nationality and color but with pine trees still in sight.
40 years of championshttp://www.familycirclecup.com/pages/FCC_EventInfo/Champions.html