A win is just a win. But a loss—a loss can be pain. When Vera Zvonareva was defeated by Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round of the Open last year, she suffered, and it was real suffering. She had six match points in the second set and converted none. That’s when the fear set in, and the doubt. She cried on the court. She pulled off the tape wrapped around her knees. She begged the chair umpire for scissors to cut the tape and then cursed at him when he denied her. She cursed and screamed, she fell, she beat her bleeding legs. Her grunts were howls. She smashed her racket into the net post. She paced and paced. When she sat in her chair during the changeover, she put a towel over her head. She wanted to disappear. She wanted not to lose. She lost the third set 6-0.
Now, Vera Zvonareva is about to face Kim Clijsters in the final of this year’s U.S. Open. So far, Zvonareva has been the picture of poise. The wind? No problem. The no. 1 seed, Caroline Wozniacki? An easy victory, in a quick 85 minutes. While the stars have showed off their florescent hotpants and specially-designed dresses, Zvonareva has been wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, as if the matches were no big deal, only warm ups. She’s letting opponents beat themselves, playing high-percentage shots while they rack up errors. “I know I’m not going to play perfect tennis all the time,” she said after her win yesterday. She just wants to play well enough to win.
This is admirable maturity. And yet, in my little warped heart, I can’t help but hope to see some flicker of fear in her eyes tonight. Not because I want her to lose—I want her to win. And not because she doesn’t belong out there, because she does. She was a finalist at Wimbledon; she’s a big hitter and an extraordinary physical specimen. I want to see the fear because that fear is honest. She is afraid, no matter what she says in those post-game press conferences. She has to be. She is facing the defending champion. Everyone will be watching her for some sign of cracking. It’s human, that fear. One second, everything is going right. The next, you’re in tears. And there’s nowhere to hide from your failure.
I’ll be cheering for her.