Saturday, June 6, 2009

Kuznetsova finds herself, and first Roland Garros title

Svetlana Kuznetsova

Not everyone believed that Svetlana Kuznetsova could win another Grand Slam. Some days, even the 23-year-old didn’t believe it herself.

But the Russian picked herself up by the bootstraps a couple of months ago, told herself not be so hard on herself and that she was capable of making of her own decisions on court and off.

As a result, she put together a brilliant Roland Garros campaign and won her second career major with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over top seeded Dinara Safina.

Just like she did when she walked out on Ashe Stadium in 2004 to face Elena Dementieva in the final and won her first Grand Slam at the US Open, Kuznetsova knew she would be able to put all of her negative thoughts back in her head and focus.

“I came out there and said, ‘Everything's great,” she said. “I'm just doing my thing I love. I'm enjoying. It's my passion, what I'm doing. It's my job. And I cannot ask for more.”

And that she did, playing ambitiously, executing a nearly perfect game plan that had Safina guessing all day along and never hesitating when she had to close the match out.

It was she who looked like the world’s best clay courter, the one who wasn’t looking at her coach every shot, who trusted herself, who knew that she had a date with destiny.

It wasn’t the Kuznetsova who gagged against Anastasia Myskina in 2004, to Justine Henin in 2005, and who was stepped on by the relentless Belgian in the 2006 final.

“I said I just gonna keep trying and keep working and keep doing this,” Kuznetsova said. “This is finally my trophy. I'm really happy, and nobody one can [take that away] from me. I have won Roland Garros and I have won US Open. I have it now.”

Safina needed this major to defend her top ranked status, and played an incredibly shaky second set that ended with her on the verge of tears and cracking her racket on the ground after the loss.

“It was the pressure I put on myself because I really wanted to win. I just didn't handle it,” Safina said. “I was a little bit desperate on the court, and didn't do the things that I had to do. Didn't stay tough mentally.”

That player might have been Kuznetsova, but she had already been through some important mental wars during the tournament, knocking off the tricky Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets in the fourth round, coming back from a break down in the third set to repeal 10-times Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in match where she was admittedly nervous, and battling past the hard hitting Australian Sam Stosur in another close three-setter in the semifinals.

Her coach, Larisa Savchenko, whom she hired just before the clay court season, said that a more relaxed approach was key.

“If we’re calm, we’re calm,” said Savchenko “ When she’s smiling, we're smiling. She’s a great player. She was ready for situation.”

But it took nearly five years for 23-year-old Kuznetsova to find her top level again. After winning her first major, she’s been very up and down, and perhaps more down than up. Since winning the 2004 US Open and coming into Roland Garros, she had reached 21 finals, and only won six of them, not the mark of a consummate closer.

Last year, she was so upset with her play that she started telling her friends she wanted to stop.

“It's been very tough times for me, especially before French Open last year,” she said. “I lost in Rome and I left to Moscow and my coach was not happy about it. I said, ‘I don't want to train. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to go back to Spain.’ I said a few times I want to quit playing tennis. I never felt it. I said to Marat [Safin], I don't know, maybe I should not play.’ He said, ‘You are crazy or what? You have unbelievable opportunities. You just have to play.’

This probably was the worst time. It was everything was on top of me, and I had to take this decision finally to leave Spain. For me it was big. Some people were telling me to do it earlier, but I was not ready. For me, it's very important to listen to myself.”

Kuznetsova moved back to Moscow after eight years of training in Spain, but she still couldn’t find her foundation. She hired a new coach, Russia’s Olga Morozova, but that union didn’t last long. She was searching for answers and wasn’t getting the right type of advice. Either that, or she wasn’t listening hard enough.

“I came back to Moscow, and I had so many people telling me, ‘You wouldn't be able to play here. You are not able to train here, because it's too much information; it's too much destruction, too much night life or whatever.’”

Then at the Beijing Olympics, she decided to pull on the ear of Roger Federer and he gave her some simple, sound advice. She approached him with some members of the Russian women’s basketball team because they wanted to get a picture with him.

He took the photo and then could tell that she wanted something more. “He was looking at me and said, What do you want? It was big because I knew once he said he likes my tennis. I didn't believe it. I was talking to him about the problems I had. He was listening, and I said, ‘Look, I want to move from Spain. I want to go to Russia I don't know what to do. He said, ‘Look, you can only depend on yourself. You can control it. If you can concentrate and live in Moscow, do this. If you cannot, only you can judge.’ I came back to Moscow and I worked hard. I had time to do everything. I had my passion, my friends, I am in my home country. I'm very patriotic. I love being there. This is the moment it turned, because I started to work hard. I let it go. I said, ‘Whatever happens, I just do whatever I feel doing. I gave my best.”

With her second Slam title, Kuznetsova showed that her US Open title was no fluke and on Monday, she’ll sport a top 5 ranking again. She rediscovered who she was: a great fighter with top level ability.

“This is big,” she said. “Didn't happen just by luck. To have two Grand Slam trophies, it’s big.”

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