Commentary

Zvonareva manifests mental toughness

Updated: January 26, 2011, 9:45 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- There was a moment Wednesday at the Australian Open when the old Vera Zvonareva temporarily resurfaced. Up a set in the quarterfinals, the world No. 2 had just blown a 3-0 lead in the second.

The momentum was gone.

Zvonareva didn't get teary-eyed, as she did at last year's Wimbledon doubles final. Nor did she remonstrate with her camp or bludgeon a racket, a la Stanislas Wawrinka a day earlier. Instead, the Russian stuck to business and won the final three games to complete a 6-2, 6-4 win over Czech lefty Petra Kvitova.

More proof that Zvonareva, who took a step closer to reaching her third straight Grand Slam final, continues to mature.

"You can see clearly that she improved a lot mentally, being more tough and determined," said Zvonareva's model turned coach, Sergei Demekhine.

Zvonareva has shown that throughout the tournament, as Demekhine knows.

Zvonareva faces the ultimate test in Thursday's semifinals, meeting tournament favorite Kim Clijsters in a repeat of the lopsided U.S. Open final. Zvonareva did beat the Belgian at Wimbledon and on two other occasions in 2010. Caroline Wozniacki tangles with surging Chinese Li Na in the other semifinal.

Zvonareva was forced to rally from a set down against impressive Serbian newcomer Bojana Jovanovski in the second round. She was in mild trouble in the third and fourth rounds facing two other Czech lefties, the unpredictable pair of Lucie Safarova and Iveta Benesova. Kvitova, whose powerful, effortless strokes resemble that of fellow Czech Tomas Berdych, hadn't lost in 2011 and trounced Zvonareva in Rome last spring.

Sailing early in the second, Zvonareva was bothered by cannons that went off nearby as part of Australia Day celebrations. An elderly fan at Rod Laver Arena also became unwell, needing medical attention, which threw her off further.

All of a sudden, a 3-0 advantage turned into a 4-3 deficit.

In perhaps the most critical game of the encounter, Zvonareva broke back immediately for 4-4.

"I'm really happy the way I handled the situation, and I was able to come up with some good shots when I needed it and finish in two sets," Zvonareva said.

A great mover, Zvonareva covers plenty of ground on the baseline. She uses angles particularly well and returns efficiently. Zvonareva got 90 percent of returns back in play Wednesday; Kvitova's figure stood at 77.

In the offseason, Zvonareva sought to add to her repertoire by becoming more aggressive.

Even if it didn't pay off at a warm-up in Sydney, where she fell in her opener to nemesis Flavia Pennetta -- her meltdown against Pennetta at the U.S. Open two years ago won't soon be forgotten -- Zvonareva hasn't deviated from the plan.

"Maybe in Sydney she didn't do so good because she was trying to do some [different] things but didn't feel it," said Zvonareva's longtime friend, Demekhine. "You could see the same thing at the beginning of this tournament. But now it looks much better. It's coming more natural so she doesn't think about these things like before. Today her tennis was more aggressive."

Clijsters, like Zvonareva, survived a second-set wobble to oust Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 7-6 (4). Clijsters hasn't dropped a set and is 3-0 in tiebreakers this fortnight.

The home nation didn't have a player in the fourth round but got some consolation in Clijsters' win. She's been dubbed "Aussie Kim" since dating Lleyton Hewitt years ago.

Clijsters admitted to feeling heavy in the legs and, complaining of a tight hamstring in the fourth round, had her upper left leg heavily strapped. Mind you, she didn't look bothered until dropping three straight games at 4-2 in the second.

Clijsters let fly from the baseline, coupling 41 winners with 37 unforced errors. She hopes to play better.

"Thinking about the experience that I've had throughout the years, I've always been able to kind of lift, not always, but most of the time, been able to lift my game when it was really necessary," she said. "So hopefully I can count on that experience a little bit as well."

Zvonareva is already doing her homework.

"I definitely will try to take positives from those matches when I beat her and try to think over again, okay, why I lost so quickly in the final, just try to avoid those moments," Zvonareva said.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.