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From the shadow of Sharapova, Zvonareva flies the flag for Russia

By Paul Gittings and Greg Duke
  • Vera Zvonareva's 11th tournament victory came in the Qatar Ladies Open
  • The Russian's win over Caroline Wozniacki mantained her continued improvement
  • Zvonareva is now the only player from Russia inside the world's top 10
  • The 26-year-old is targeting a first grand slam win and top spot in world rankings

(CNN) -- Last week's victory over world number one Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Qatar Ladies Open once again confirmed Vera Zvonareva as Russia's top women's tennis player.

The 26-year-old hit 30 winners in just 20 games, out-classing the Dane -- who had not lost a set in the tournament prior to the final -- 6-4 6-4.

It was Zvonareva's 11th WTA Tour tournament victory and maintained the steady progress she has made since turning professional as a 16-year-old.

Wozniacki returns to top of world rankings Video

Last year was Zvonareva's breakthrough, reaching two of the last three grand slam finals, and she has maintained that form into 2011, reaching the semifinals of the recent Australian Open before winning in Qatar as she continues to back up her undoubted talent with outstanding results.

For so long in the shadow of compatriots such as Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina, both former world No.1s, Zvonareva is now the only player from her country in the top 10.

Currently No.3, with a career-high No.2 after reaching the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010, Zvonareva has finally found the inner belief to go to the very top.

"It was a great experience and gave me a lot of motivation and confidence and made me realise one day I could go one better," she told CNN.

Zvonareva was introduced to the game by her mother Natalya at the age of six, but admitted that she did not have any real thoughts about becoming a professional tennis player even when making her mark in the junior ranks.

But underneath her cool exterior, there is a ruthless competitive streak: "I wanted to be the best at everything I do, whether in my studies or in tennis," she said.

Unusually for a professional player, Zvonareva is spending her off court time studying for a second degree and also takes an active interest in politics.

Surveying the current events in the Middle East, Zvonareva did not want to be drawn on specifics but her sympathies appeared to be with those demanding democratic freedoms.

I try to watch the news and get as much information as possible
--Vera Zvonareva

"It's important people should have equal opportunities in life. I try to watch the news and get as much information as possible."

Zvonareva is also aware that like other leading sports stars she has a privileged existence but can also use her celebrity to positive purpose.

A daughter of a close friend developed Rett Syndrome, a dehabilitating brain disorder which affects development.

Moved by her condition, Zvonareva is putting the final touches to her foundation in Russia to raise awareness and funds.

"I feel it is very important to give something back," she said.

It is hard not to get the impression of a very serious-minded young woman with little time for frivolity, but Zvonareva is not adverse to the glamorous side of celebrity and has featured in several eye-catching photo shoots.

"Sure it's part of my job. You have to dress up and give your fans a different look. I enjoy dressing up, wearing high heels and a beautiful dress."

Favorite designer?: "Dolce & Gabbana."

Favorite Music?: "Rock"

Favorite Performer?: "Linkin Park"

Favorite Song?: "Rihanna's Breakin' Dishes"

Favorite Personality?: "Matt Damon"

Favorite purchase?: "Probably my first car, it was a Volkswagen Polo"

Zvonareva said she later gave the car to her mother, who was a significant sportswoman in her own right, playing in the Soviet Union team which took bronze in the field hockey at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

Zvonareva was proud to match her mother with bronze in the women's singles in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, but since turning to a new coach, Sergey Demekhin, in May last year she has moved up another level and she will have gold in her sights at the 2012 Olympics on the grass of Wimbedon.

Before that, she will target her first grand slam and top spot in the world rankings as she battles it out with Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters and surely, on her return from injury, Serena Williams, who beat Zvonareva in the SW19 final last July but has been sidelined by injury since then.