The Eternal Question

Wednesday, October 01, 2008 /by

SkThere’s death. There are taxes. There’s the sun rising in the east. And there’s this question, pondered every three or four months by tennis fans all over the world: What’s the deal with Svetlana Kuznetsova?

After the last two weekends, we’re still waiting for a satisfactory answer. Kuznetsova reached the final in Tokyo two weeks ago and did the same in Beijing on Sunday. Both times she was beaten by nearly identical, and identically depressing, scores: 6-1, 6-3 by Dinara Safina at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and 6-3, 6-2 by Jelena Jankovic at the China Open. Both times Kuznetsova betrayed little emotion and afterward offered a less-than-eye-opening explanation, beyond the fact that her opponent had played better than her.

What makes Kuznetsova so questionable is not the fact that she’s an underachiever. It’s true that she doesn’t live up to her potential, but she does it in a very specific way: She can’t win finals. Her loss to Jankovic in Beijing was her 10th loss in her last 11 title rounds. Kuznetsova is the athletic match of any woman save the Williams sisters. She's always a threat and always in the Top 10. She has helped the Russians to multiple Fed Cup wins. She can beat anyone, and often does—she was 4-2 against Jankovic coming into Sunday and had defeated her in the quarterfinals in Tokyo the week before. But once she faced her in a final, Kuznetsova didn’t stand a chance. You could see it right from the opening games.

Why, anyone with a knowledge of these two women’s styles might ask, did Kuznetsova, the bigger hitter, begin 5 feet behind the baseline while Jankovic, the most defensive-minded of the top players, stood on top of hers? From there Jankovic played with more purpose than she usually does. She dictated the rallies by going behind Kuznetsova, by redirecting the ball whenever she wanted, and by finishing points with down the line winners. Jankovic has had her own struggles in finals, but on this day she made a point of playing a more aggressive game without decreasing her usual margin for error. The pressure of the moment had sharpened both her tactics—she wanted to get Kuznetsova on the run as soon as possible and force her to play defense—and her execution.

Contrast this with the Russian, who continued to camp out well behind the baseline. From that position, she couldn’t have played with a purpose or a plan even if she had wanted to. Everything off her racquet was reactive. Even the winners she did hit, like a scorching pass at 3-2 in the first set, seemed random and unlikely to be repeated. By going up the line so often, Jankovic exposed Kuznetsova’s very weak defensive backhand, where she’s forced to take one hand off the racquet and slice the ball back. She dumped at least half a dozen into the net. This isn't just a shot she doesn’t like to hit in a match, it also seems to be one she doesn’t like to practice. Whereas Jankovic raised her game for the occasion, Kuznetsova looked defeated after five games, as if she had resigned herself to another loss in a final.

From a playing perspective, two flaws always stand out for me in Kuznetsova’s game. The first is the heavily Western forehand grip and fast, go-for-broke swing she uses on her forehand. The combination allows her to put high balls away for impressive winners from just about anywhere. The downside is that, like James Blake, it doesn’t allow her to hit her forehand as a consistent rally ball—her timing and footwork need to be virtually perfect all the time. And Kuznetsova lacks the discipline to be perfect very often, especially on key points, where she has a disconcerting habit of not being in the right position when she makes contact. Up a break point at 3-2 in the first set, she stood flat-footed and sailed a routine forehand long. She lost that game and was broken in the next one.

Positioning as a whole is another of Kuznetsova’s eternal issues. You might say she’s cursed—or spoiled, depending on how you look at it—by her athleticism, which allows her to muscle shots while she’s falling backward or sideways, and hit winners from places other players can’t. The problem is that Kuznetsova is always falling backwards or sideways when she makes contact, and against Jankovic she rarely showed the patience needed to work a point until she was inside the baseline before she pulled the trigger. While Jankovic took her shots on the rise and from the middle of the court, Kuznetsova hit hers on the run and from the sidelines. She never made a concerted effort to break that pattern.

What is it about finals that Kuznetsova can’t deal with? In her press conferences, she doesn’t seem to have much idea of what she did wrong other than miss her shots and lose to the better player that day. Maybe at a certain point in a final, when things don’t start well, Kuznetsova mentally caves because she knows she had a successful week anyway. Or maybe the thought of losing another final wears on her to the point where stops trying to battle it. On Sunday she showed no fire, frustration, anger, or emotion of any kind. By the last game, she had checked out. Kuznetsova began it with three unforced errors, including a crazy, pointless forehand wide and an embarrassing forehand volley to the same spot. Jankovic put her out of her misery on the fourth point with a passing-shot winner.

Of the Russian women who broke through four years ago, Maria Sharapova, half-American anyway, has gone on to win more majors; Anastasia Myskina is out of the game; Elena Dementieva has had her ups and downs, but will always be hampered by nerves on her serve. Kuznetsova is somewhere in the middle of them, not a ringing success but not a disaster either. Perhaps her U.S. Open win in 2004 led us to believe she was tougher mentally than she really was, and we've never adjusted our expectations downward. Still, she's exasperating. Her off-court persona is fun-loving and jocky. She can hold her own on a soccer pitch with the men, and she loves her hip-hop and night life. This person is pretty much the opposite of the floundering, impassive character who shows up during final-round matches.

The only Russian woman to reach No. 1 is Sharapova, but like I said she’s at least half-American, especially in the way she takes success as her right, as the product of her will. In fact, the only year-end WTA No. 1s from the Eastern bloc, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, are American citizens (Navratilova's reign at the top began one year after she became a U.S. citizen; on the men's side, Czechoslovakia's Ivan Lendl reached No. 1 for the first time less than two years after he moved to the States). This season Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, both of whom trained in the West, have a chance to add their names to that list. Early this year, Ivanovic seemed to be coming around to the idea that she was a No. 1, that success was her right; now it’s Jankovic and even Safina who appear to be thinking the same thing for themselves. All three have, at different times in 2008, played with a heightened sense of purpose—Beijing was as focused as I’ve seen Jankovic in a final. They’ve left Kuznetsova, who is more powerful and athletic than any of them, 4 feet behind the baseline and four spots below them in the rankings. After watching her scramble pointlessly for two sets on Sunday, I can only conclude that she's content in both of those places.

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