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Steve Flink: Kuznetsova Spoils the Party

6/6/2009 1:00:00 PM

PARIS--Along with many others who follow the game closely, I thought everything was aligned perfectly for Dinara Safina to validate her No. 1 world ranking and collect her first major crown on the red clay here at Roland Garros. Safina had been exceedingly close to the top of her game across the entire fortnight. She had surged into the final at the cost of only a single set in six matches; in her other five matches combined, Safina conceded only 11 games. She had won her last two tournaments en route to the French Open. She had carried herself with a maturity and sense of self that indicated she was ready, willing and able to step forward and put her name among the elite in her profession.                

Safina had been in the final at Roland Garros a year ago, losing on that occasion to a top of the line Ana Ivanovic. She had made it to the final of the Australian Open earlier this year, falling against a Serena Williams who was virtually unstoppable on that particular day in Melbourne. But then Safina had kept persistently working on her game, and when she garnered the No. 1 world ranking for the first time on April 20, she understood that it was now her responsibility to live up to that label, and to wear it with the sole intention of making certain that she would perform at her best when the stakes are highest. And so she set her sights on the clay courts of Paris, hoping and believing her time had come.                

It all went according to plan until she confronted No. 7 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third all-Russian Grand Slam tournament final. Five years ago at Roland Garros, Anastasia Myskina had upended Elena Dementieva for the Roland Garros crown. Later that year, Kuznetsova bested Dementieva for the U.S. Open title. And now Kuznetsova had done it again by toppling Safina. To be sure, the loss for Safina was significant. Her remorse was painful to witness, and her tears after the defeat seemed heartfelt and entirely sincere. She wanted this tournament badly, and clearly believed she was going to win it.                

But the fact remains that Kuznetsova was simply too good as she dismantled Safina 6-4, 6-2 in the championship match. In every facet of the game, she was better than the world No. 1. Kuznetsova was taking the ball earlier, striking it harder, gaining the upper hand in rally after rally. She was more versatile and craftier, ending an important number of crosscourt rallies by changing direction and going down the line off her two-hander. She was tactically sharper and more imaginative, technically sounder, and her serve on this occasion was decidedly more reliable.                

Moreover, when Kuznetsova was forced to play defense by an ever determined Safina, the No. 7 seed was more than up to the task. She defended skillfully and productively on crucial points in both sets to thwart Safina on those instances when the top seed was able to take control of rallies. Across the board, from beginning to end, with very few lapses, Kuznetsova was the player who had a larger sense of purpose and a clearer plan of attack. In plain and simple terms, she beat Safina to the punch and outperformed her on every level.                

For a brief moment at the outset of the match, Safina had reason for encouragement on a cool, dark and cloudy afternoon. She broke Kuznetsova in the opening game of the contest at the cost of only one point. But quickly Kuznetsova struck back. She won the next two games without losing a point. After Safina held for 2-2, she had Kuznetsova at break point down in the following game. Nonetheless, Kuznetsova held on for 3-2. With Safina serving at 3-4, Kuznetsova reached 30-40, and laced a flat two-handed backhand crosscourt with excellent depth. As if that shot was not already enough of a challenge for Safina, the ball hardly bounced, and Safina had no play at all.                

With that piece of good fortune, Kuznetsova moved ahead 5-3, serving for the set in the ninth game. This was the only juncture when she displayed any meaningful doubts or insecurity. She made three glaring unforced errors in that game and gave it away at love. Safina now had a chance to get back to 5-5 and perhaps salvage the set. But at 4-5, 15-30, she was thoroughly caught off guard by a brilliantly produced inside-out forehand winner from Kuznetsova. Suddenly, Safina was down 15-40, double set point. Kuznetsova exploited that opening beautifully with a well disguised two-hander down the line catching Safina leaning the wrong way. Set to Kuznetsova, 6-4.                

In the second set, Safina gamely fought her way to 2-2 on serve. Her spirit was not yet broken. But Kuznetsova proceeded to capture four games in a row to achieve the victory she coveted so much. At 2-2, she held on from deuce after Safina had connected with an inside-out forehand winner. With Safina serving at 2-3, the top seed double faulted to make it 15-15, pulled a backhand wide for 15-30, and was then pushed onto her back foot as she netted a forehand off a penetrating backhand down the line from Kuznetsova.                

Now it was 15-40. Safina went wide to the forehand with her first serve, and Kuznetsova replied with a scorching crosscourt return that Safina could not handle. Kuznetsova was ahead 4-2, and was not about to look back. She held at 15 after making four of six first serves, pushing on to 5-2. When Safina served to save the match in the following game, it was futile. Kuznetsova fed Safina a low slice that the favorite sent into the net, and then Safina double faulted at match point down. She was guilty of seven double faults in the match while Kuznetsova had only one.  

Both players made 22 unforced errors over the two sets, but more telling was this: Safina had 25 forced mistakes compared to 11 for Kuznetsova. Moreover, Kuznetsova made good on 77% of her first serves while Safina finished at 61%. The numbers in this case do not lie; Kuznetsova was the woman who deserved to win this tennis match and to take the tournament, and that is indisputable.

Kuznetsova strung together some very impressive victories in winning this event. In the round of 16, she was locked at one set all against Agnieszka Radwanska, the No. 12 seed and a woman who can really play the game. But Kuznetsova pulled through that contest 6-4, 1-6, 6-1. Then she won the match of the women’s tournament from No, 2 seed Serena Williams 7-6 (3) 5-7, 7-5 with some excellent play in the clutch. Kuznetsova squandered a 5-3 first set lead and then saved a set point on her serve at 5-6 before completely outplaying Serena in the tie-break.                

Kuznetsova had a 5-3 edge in the second set before Serena turned up the volume of her intensity and talent to take that set away. Serena then went ahead 3-1 in the final set, but Kuznetsova did not let go. With Serena serving at 4-5, 15-40, double match point down, Kuznetsova could not convert, but when the same situation occurred with Williams serving at 5-6, Kuznetsova finished off the job. That victory set the stage for Kuznetsova to hold back the remarkable Samantha Stosur of Australia in a three set semifinal 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3. Kuznetsova was close to a straight set triumph in that one when she led 4-2 in the second set and later when she had 5-2 in the tie-break, but Stosur was resilient. Nevertheless, Kuznetsova regrouped admirably in the final set.                

So Kuznetsova can stand tall and feel proud of what she did to win this French Open. The way I saw it, she played some of the finest tennis of her career, and competed with a stability and quiet confidence I have seldom seen from her. By virtue of having now secured two Grand Slam championships, Kuznetsova has given herself an excellent chance of some day making it into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.                

She does not turn 24 until June 27. She might well win another major before she closes the book on her career. Whether she does that or not, Svetlana Kuznetsova can freely celebrate this triumph at Roland Garros, realizing  she did not get to her goal by accident, knowing full well that her victory was the product of hard work, sound mechanics, and as much mental toughness as she has ever displayed.

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