Sveta Sweats it Out: Kuznetsova answers the bell with gritty win over Stosur

French Open 2009
By Matthew Zemek, June 5th, 2009

svetlana-kuznetsovaIn a span of just under 29 hours of time, Svetlana Kuznetsova has radically reshaped her reputation.

Forced to play on back-to-back days by the quirks of the French Open’s scheduling format, Kuznetsova found an extra ounce of will to complement her level of skill. The seventh seed, just one day after outlasting Serena Williams in a grueling quarterfinal match, stopped 30th-seeded Australian Samantha Stosur in an entertaining three-set semifinal showdown. The 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win, in 2 hours and 25 minutes at Court Philippe Chatrier, sends Kuznetsova into Saturday’s women’s final against fellow Russian Dinara Safina.

After Wednesday’s triumph over Serena–the most accomplished active player in women’s tennis–much ink was spilt, and deservedly so, about the ability of the Kooze to overcome her historically frail nerves. For 2 hours and 45 minutes, the 23-year-old Kuznetsova fought hard enough to not only defeat a bona-fide tennis legend, but slay the demons that have been a regular part of her professional journey. The courageous conquest should have earned the Russian a day of rest, but because the French Open puts two women’s quarterfinals on separate days–instead of putting all four quarterfinals on the same day–Kuznetsova had to toe the terre battue roughly 23 hours after the end of the Williams match. A brutally short turnaround after a taxing tussle caused fears that the Kooze would lose her fitness and focus against Stosur, who breezed through her own Wednesday quarterfinal in under 90 minutes. When one realizes that this showcase semifinal lasted nearly two and a half hours, the simple math is rather shocking: From 2 p.m. Paris time on Wednesday through 6:40 p.m. on Thursday (when this match ended), Kuznetsova accumulated 5 hours and 10 minutes of court time, playing six high-impact sets, most of them with a slightly rolled ankle that was suffered in the Williams match.

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The simple fact that Kuznetsova has lived to see Saturday’s singles final is, in itself, a testament to a very different narrative, and a transformation in the identity of women’s tennis foremost ballstrikers.

If Kuznetsova had to chase away old mental enemies against Serena, the seventh seed had to fight many more familiar cranial competitors in her battle with Stosur. The 30th-seeded Australian, like No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova, was a first-time Grand Slam semifinalist who picked Roland Garros as the site of a personal coming-out party. Stosur’s nerves sabotaged her level of play in a messy first set, but as the match went on, the veteran from Down Under began to hit the ball with increasing confidence and power. This was never more apparent than in the second-set tiebreak, when Kuznetsova–up 5-2–was just two points from an early finish line.

Stosur–in a manner reminiscent of Roger Federer’s get-out-of-jail shot against Tommy Haas in Monday’s fourth round of the men’s tournament–hit a go-for-broke inside-outside forehand to revive her spirits. Emboldened by that superb shot, Stosur ripped off a series of huge serves and passing shots to win four more points in succession, and take the breaker by a 7-5 margin. With Kuznetsova’s ankle still frail, the Australian’s ability to send the match to a third set forced the Russian to rally under adverse circumstances, just like the Williams match the day before. It was cruel yet unavoidable: Svetlana Kuznetsova had to pull off one feat of notable perseverance on Wednesday; but if the 23-year-old couldn’t do the same deed on Thursday, a second final at Roland Garros wouldn’t materialize.

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Evidently, however, the Kooze retained the same iron will she discovered just 24 hours before.

Kuznetsova crushed groundstrokes from both wings in the final set, winning points while not getting sucked into long, grinding rallies that favored the fitter, fresher Stosur. Protecting her serve with care, Kuznetsova–serving first in the set, a meaningful advantage in a deciding stanza–kept her nose in front at 3-2 and then converted her one big chance at a break when Stosur missed a pair of down-the-line forehands in the sixth game of the set. Up 4-2 and given another ticket to the final, Kuznetsova didn’t crumble. Two solid service games, defined by a reliable forehand, delivered the resolute Russian another delicious and highly satisfying triumph. In two days and two matches, a woman once prone to pratfalls and face-plants has now planted herself in the French Open final. And as a reward for her persistence in the face of in-match adversity, Kuznetsova will now get a day off on Friday before her Saturday date with destiny… and Dinara.

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