I was a little surprised to read Vera Zvonareva’s reprise of an interview she gave to Reuters in January during the 2011 Australian Open. At the time Vera was quoted as saying: “I’m not Serena Williams who can hit a serve 200 miles per hour. I’m not Maria Sharapova who can hit a winner on one ball, I don’t think I’m Rafael Nadal, who is physically unbelievable…If I’m not mentally strong, then how am I number two in the world?”
Minus the exaggeration of Serena's serving abilities, it was a very fair question. My personal response was that Vera was a largely unnoticed #2 because of her consistency. Same for Wozniacki, then #1. But mainly I focused on Vera's claims of mental strength.
At the time I thought that Vera was referring to her current mental condition which has clearly improved over the last two years. I have privately wondered if she did seek some professional help to get her beyond her former proclivity for mental breakdowns and labile scream-fests when things did not go her way on the tennis court. I certainly always felt that she should.
And now comes another interview out of Dubai in which Vera more than makes it clear that she is not admitting to any history of mental challenges. No, Vera would have us believe that our eyes have in the past deceived us, and that what we interpreted as mental breakdowns were simply a tennis player expressing healthy emotions.
Look, I am all for the healthy expression of emotions. I agree with Vera that emotions are a part of any sport. I agree with much of the following statement offered by the newly emotionally confident Zvonareva: “I am much more experienced and much more mature now. I think people talk a lot about it just because you have a couple of emotions on the court, then and there. I am an emotional person and it is part of the game. Any sport you take is an emotional sport. You can see fans and there is no sport without emotions because if there is no emotion then it's not interesting any more”. I concur.
Vera initially seems to be acknowledging that she was not always “experienced” and “mature”. And this is the simple truth. She used to be an emotional basket-case. A woman who once collapsed onto a tennis court and started slapping at her bandaged knees for betraying her inability to run down balls. A woman who sobbed so hard under her towels that she could have won an Academy Award for best dramatic performance. And I am all for letting go of that past and validating that today’s Vera seems to be an emotionally more resilient person than she used to be. But I will not concede that she has always been this way.
In this updated interview, Vera no longer compares herself to Rafael Nadal (Mr. Mental Toughness bar none). Instead she only invokes Sharapova and Serena. And she no longer credits Serena with out-sized serves. But see if you can find the moment when Vera seems to be re-interpreting her history of mental weakness: “I am not like Serena Williams as I can't serve aces. I am not like Maria Sharapova as I can't hit a winner on every single ball. I don't have all these things and I am still among the top three players out there…So if you think I am not mentally tough or something, well how can I win the tennis matches then? There is a big difference between being mentally tough and being emotional. It's a huge difference”.
Yes Vera, there is a huge difference between being mentally tough and being emotional. And the truth is that back in the day, you were neither. When I think of “mental toughness”, players like Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, the sisters Williams, and Maria Sharapova come to mind. These are players who are tough as nails. They fight to the bitter end, digging deep to find the emotional resources to see them through to their goal of winning every game, every match, every tournament.
When I think of “emotional”, I also do not think of the former Vera Zvonareva. Vera was not emotional; she was labile. There is a huge difference between these two as well. But the distinction seems lost on Vera in her dedication to re-interpret her own history and invite us to whitewash it along with her.
Emotional lability refers to the inability to control one’s emotions. And it’s not at all a sign of mental toughness. Vera has had many moments of complete loss of emotional control on the tennis court. I am not going to embarrass her or her fans by recounting them all. Suffice it to say that I am happy that these moments now seem to be behind her. I adore the new emotionally more controlled and mentally strong Vera. But I can do so without lying to myself about how she used to be.