It was a queasy, nervy 137 minutes on Court 1 for Svetlana Kuznetsova, but the 2009 French Open champion triumphed in the end, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-2 over Daniela Hantuchova. It would be an unwarranted insult to Hantuchova’s play to say that the real battle was fought between Kuznetsova’s ears, but the mental dimension was never going to be anything other than blatant. Both players, in their different ways, are famously friable: ‘fragile’ is probably the word most often associated with Hantuchova, while Kuznetsova goes by ‘headcase,’ ‘liable to implode’ and ‘oh god, Sveta, why, WHY???,’ at least among her fans. The myth doesn’t do justice to the determination and resilience both women possess just by virtue of doing what they do and being so successful at it, but it does capture the general atmosphere of anxiety that pervaded this match.
After exchanging breaks early, the first set was a cagey, cat-and-mouse affair until all hell broke loose in the tiebreak. After dumping a sitter forehand into the net to go down a mini-break, Hantuchova led 4-2 before a loose couple of errors saw Kuznetsova with the set on her racquet, serving at 6-5—only to lunge for a ball that was clearly going out and sending it wildly wide, a spectacularly self-immolatory moment. Hantuchova capitalized with a reflex volley for the set and a jack-knife fist-pump so intense one feared she might snap like dry spaghetti. Trained in her youth as a classical pianist, Hantuchova’s game, when she is given time to set up for her favorite down-the-line winners, has the sparse elegance of a piece by Einaudi. Unfortunately, her movement when forced to chase up the court is splay-footed and ungainly, and Kuznetsova exploited that with an increasing number of exquisitely played and timed dropshots as the match went on. After saving Hantuchova’s only break point in the second set with a huge backhand down the line, Kuznetsova took advantage of a wobbling serve to break and serve out the set.
Although Kuznetsova showed off fine tactical maneuvers, the third set was more about holding nerve—and serve. Despite their similar reputations as mentally questionable competitors, Kuznetsova’s career achievements far outweigh Hantuchova’s, and her willingness to dig deep, bare her teeth and really fight through the third set may begin to explain why. She bounced back like a rubber ball from surrendering her serve early on, and when Hantuchova began to snatch at the ball with her forehand, Kuznetsova capitalized instantly and didn’t look back, even when she struck a few wild balls herself. In my last Racquet Reaction on a match of Kuznetsova’s, I suggested that she might yet play herself into form and confidence at Roland Garros after a dismal season. I didn’t really believe it—but I think Kuznetsova might.