Battle of the Incompletes

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PARIS—On the surface of it, today’s fourth-round match between No. 8 Angelique Kerber and No. 39 Svetlana Kuznetsova was a quality encounter ending in a significant but by no means puzzling or shocking upset. If you’re up to speed on your tennis, you know that Kuznetsova, who won, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, is capable of anything, if not always the good, right, or smart thing.

The former French Open champ is one of the museum-grade head cases of the WTA. Quicker than her stumpy size suggests and blessed with a fetching combination of power and touch, she’s also a genuine character—soulful and quirky, seemingly averse to great success as well as convention. She seems to carry a dark cloud around with her, ever-ready to pop it open overhead when the going gets too easy, or good. Some say this makes her distinctly Russian, but perhaps they’ve read too much Dostoyevsky.

This being tennis, those traits of Kuznetsova’s spill over into her game and help explain why she’s been such a “now you see me, now you don’t” player, saddled with a habit of self-sabotage. It’s admittedly a little screwy to discuss a two-time Grand Slam champion in such almost disparaging terms, but then, how often does someone with such dazzling credits end up finishing inside the Top 20 just once since she won Roland Garros in 2009? (And that just barely: Kuznetsova was No. 19 in 2011.) Injuries played a part—but only a part—of the story.

Kuznetsova’s opponent today isn’t a comparably complex character. Kerber is a robust German who discovered self-belief in late 2011 and has spent a year-and-a-half making up for lost time. She did an impressive job belting her way into the Top 5 by October of last year, but she’s incomplete in many ways. Unlike Kuznetsova’s, Kerber’s flaws are conspicuously technical.

Kerber’s groundstrokes are good to superb, and she’s an excellent retriever, but not a great mover. And despite the advantage of being a lefthander, her serve—especially her second serve—is a glaring weakness. How a girl who can whale on the ball can have so little Oooomph! to her serve is a mystery. Those shortcomings have put Kerber under a lot of pressure to hold her vaunted place; these days, you can almost hear the screech of her fingernails as she slips, ever so slowly, downward on the face of the cliff, from No. 5 to No. 6 to, now, No. 8.

It was a bright, cool, windy day in Paris, and the stadium was populated mostly by gate stewards when the women walked out to kick off the program. Kerber was kitted out in the blue-and-yellow Adidas flavor of the month, while Kuznetsova wore an outfit designed by Albus Dumbledore. Dark blue with a pattern suggesting clouds in the moonlight, it lacked only a wand as an accessory, but Kuznetsova made do just fine with her Head (that’s the racquet, not some poor critter’s noggin).

This was a match of numerous break points—25 in all, 13 of them against Kuznetsova’s serve. But Kuznetsova has a Merlin-like ability to vary the pace and tone of your typical rally, as well as on-demand power and the ability to hit her way out of a jam. She used those qualities to keep Kerber at bay for most of the two-hour and 20-minute match.

This also was one of those matches in which the women played hot potato with the lead, with back-to-back breaks in every set. In the first set it was in the seventh and eighth games, after which Kuznetsova held and then broke Kerber exactly as you might expect: On the final two points, she hit a backhand service return winner and then a forehand inside-out service-return winner. Sveta’s hero moment was qualified only slightly by the fact that they were second serves of 119 and 124 K.P.H., respectively (74 and 77 M.P.H.).

Still, Kuznetsova didn’t want to be denied the credit she’s due after the match, when she said of Kerber’s puffball serve: “It is kind of not fast serve, but it’s lefty serve. It’s not that easy as it looks maybe. Sometimes she can go wide on that serve to the forehand, especially on the deuce side. She risk it sometimes. You just try to take the most advantage you can and not like 100 percent to go for risk, you know.”

By that point, a theme had emerged. When the women held one of the frequent rallying contests, Kerber’s defense edged out risk-taking Kuznetsova’s variety. But when other factors came into play to shape a point, Kuznetsova usually prevailed. “I knew before the match that it will be tough, tough one,” Kerber would say. “Even when she misses one point or one ball, she’s still always there.”

Kuznetsova held the first game of the second set, then broke Kerber. But the lack of discipline that is also a hallmark of Kuznetsova’s game emerged once again, and she gave the break right back. Kerber broke her in the seventh game, and held on to serve it out. It was a set in which Kuznetsova felt she didn’t play with sufficient risk and allowed Kerber too much latitude to counter-punch.

“I think I should have played better in the second set, you know, but when I was in front I was a little bit stopping myself. Then it was very important not to do the same mistake in the third set. I think it was just too much returning. Then in the third set I just thought I would play longer rallies, just I would go for my shots when I have better opportunity.”

The third set also began with a pair of breaks; fittingly, this time it was Kerber unable to consolidate. By the fourth game of the set, the quality of the rallies had declined significantly, and that would work in Kuznetsova’s favor. She held serve to take a 2-1 lead and struck with a quick break.

The next game was the turning point in a match that had all the earmarks of a shootout in which there wouldn’t actually be one. Kuznetsova fell behind 15-40, but an unreturnable forehand and cross-court forehand winner that came off Kuznetsova’s racquet like rifle shots brought her back to deuce. Kerber would have one more break point in that game but Kuznetsova dismissed it, and went on to hold with an inside-out forehand winner.

That pattern-breaking hold damped Kerber’s enthusiasm, and the next four games rolled by uneventfully, until Kuznetsova served it out at 15, winning on a down-the-line forehand winner. The comparisons to 2009 were inevitable later on, and a reporter asked if Kuznetsova felt any pressure in that regard, or if she was content to continue to “fly under the radar”?

“I don’t care,” she said, smiling. “Whatever. I just go out there and play my game. Sometimes I can be very good. Sometimes I just have bad days. I’m just human being, maybe even more than other people. Just trying to do my job. And I don’t care if I’m under or not under or flying or standing or whatever it is. I just go out there and try to play my game.”

Serena Williams probably will put a lot more strain on that game than Kerber did today; perhaps Kuznetsova should return to Hogwarts and see what else Dumbledore can cook up before that meeting takes place.

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