Five years ago, Svetlana Kuznetsova had nothing to lose when she captured her first and only Grand Slam title. Today, the woman who has been hounded by frail nerves and stage-fright fiascoes finally grew up as a tennis player.
Kuznetsova–one of the most talented yet unimposing performers on the WTA Tour–registered what should be viewed as the most meaningful win of her career on Wednesday afternoon in Paris. The seventh-seeded Russian reached the French Open semifinals for the second straight year with a rousing and riveting 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5 triumph over second-seeded Serena Williams at Court Suzanne Lenglen. The quality quarterfinal conquest sends “the Kooze” to Thursday’s semifinal round against 30th-seeded Samantha Stosur of Australia.
Kuznetsova has long possessed one of the very best forehands in all of women’s tennis. Able to go inside out, over the top, crosscourt or down the line, Kuznetsova rarely if ever faces a shotmaking deficit when she stares down an opponent. After roaring through the draw at the 2004 U.S. Open in New York, a very innocent 19-year-old had already cracked the major championship code. It only seemed a matter of time before Kuznetsova would add to her trophy case and become a regular presence on the final weekend at slam tournaments.
Shockingly yet undeniably, a rise to glory never materialized for the soft-spoken Svetak, whose humble off-court manner was not accompanied by on-court serenity.
The book on the Kooze–and it’s not a hard book to read–is that the Russian will tighten up at big events, particularly in the later rounds of slams. Entering this French Open, Kuznetsova had reached only four slam semifinals, a remarkably low number for a woman who has spent most of the past five years in the top 10 of the WTA rankings, and will celebrate her 24th birthday on June 27. Despite lethal groundstrokes and above-average court coverage, the physically gifted Kuznetsova has not been able to deliver the goods in the heat of the Grand Slam spotlight. The reason for the unfulfilled nature of a lucrative but relatively uncredentialed career has been as obvious as it is perplexing: The Kooze has not been able to control her psyche.
Outside of her one championship moment in the 2004 U.S. Open final against Elena Dementieva (another Russian headcase in a sport filled with them), Kuznetsova has flopped and flailed in her few forays to the final rounds of slams. In her two unsuccessful slam finals, Kuznetsova never had a chance against Justine Henin, who blew away the Kooze at the 2006 French and the 2007 U.S. Open. In one other semifinal appearance, Kuznetsova drowned in errors and self-loathing during a miserable outing against Dinara Safina at last year’s French Open. For all the money she’s made, and for all the friends she has in the locker room (not something that can normally be said for any individual on the WTA Tour), Kuznetsova hadn’t attained the kinds of results worthy of her immense abilities. As she faced Serena Williams, the sport’s best closer and its most cutthroat on-court assassin, Kuznetsova had one more chance–on clay, a friendly surface–to remake her reputation and close in on a second major championship.
My, how this makeover attempt succeeded.
Four months ago, Kuznetsova faced Serena in the same round of the year’s prior slam event, the Australian Open. In that match, the Kooze led by a set and a break, but was broken when serving for the match at 5-4 in the second. Serena would come back to notch a 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 win on the way to the championship Down Under, the 10th slam of the younger Williams sister’s decorated career. Little could anyone have known that this French-flavored fistfight would bring forth familiar demons for Kuznetsova, in an enthralling case of deja vu that provided a plot twist at the end.
Once more, the Kooze won the first set (with a flawlessly played tiebreak) and then gained a break lead in the second to serve for the match at 5-3. Yet again, however, Serena–as has been so typical of her tennis and her persona over the long march of time–played her fiercest and best brand of ball when held at competitive gunpoint. The No. 2 seed broke to stay in the match, held to level the set at 5-all, and ultimately repeated the break-and-serve cycle to take the second set and square the match at a set apiece. When Serena broke early in the final stanza to gain a 3-1 lead, there couldn’t have been a soul on Court Lenglen who felt that Kuznetsova had a chance.
For once, however, Kuznetsova herself actually seemed to believe.
The seventh seed broke back for 3-all, produced two gutsy service holds, and then–with the set on serve–found a 15-40 opening on Serena’s serve at 5-4. Williams, however, erased two match points and eventually held for 5-all. Once again, Kuznetsova had come to the brink of sweet victory, only to be denied by the best active player in women’s tennis. The longer this mesmerizing match continued, the better the chances were that Kuznetsova would become frustrated. Serena Williams loves to stay on court and outlast weaker-willed foes, so when the third set stood at 5-all, the smart money rested with the 2002 French Open champion.
The smart money, however, would turn out to be wrong on this wondrous Wednesday.
Kuznetsova held yet again for 6-5, and after that display of steely nerves following the inability to convert a pair of match points, it was as though the Russian found the final mental push she needed. The Kooze broke down Serena’s groundstrokes in the twelfth game of the third set, forcing a backhand error from Serena on a third match point to chase away the ghosts that had tormented her mind for years.
Now in the semifinals against a player outside the top 25 (Stosur), Kuznetsova won’t be playing anyone near the caliber of Serena Williams. With one solid, steady performance, this beautiful ballstriker with the balky brain can continue to redefine a career that might still have some Grand Slam championships left in it.
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