Inside Sveta

by: Lindsay Gibbs | August 24, 2014

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She's commanded on court and confounded critics—sometimes in unison. Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, remains a unique talent. (AP Photos)

In the tennis world, you come across all kinds. There are unpredictable wild cards, inspiring champions, enigmatic characters, off-court philosophers, on-court artists, and infuriating underachievers. Then there’s two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is an ever-churning mixture of all the above. 

This U.S. Open marks the 10-year anniversary of the braces-clad Russian breaking out of the shadows of her compatriots to claim her first Grand Slam, defeating perennial bridesmaid Elena Dementieva in the final, 6-3, 7-5. 

If you’re struggling to remember the details of that particular fortnight, you’re not alone.

“It was good, it was cool,” Kuznetsova reflected at the Citi Open this summer as she chomped on pasta and vegetables and fielded doubles requests from players she didn’t know. “I was 19, I was a teenager. What do you want from me? 

“I try to live with the present and just do my best. Do you remember this fish (in Finding Nemo) that didn’t remember anything after 15 seconds? I’m Dory. So I don’t even remember what was 10 years ago.”

Kuznetsova’s U.S. Open win was so unexpected that even though she was ranked No. 9 at the time, had won two WTA titles and was a former top junior, L. Jon Wertheim wrote in Sports Illustrated that she was “the tournament's most surprising winner of the Open era.” 

The storylines were elsewhere during those two weeks. Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati had a dramatic quarterfinal clash that was the catalyst for Hawk-Eye. Capriati and Lindsay Davenport made it to the semis, and seemed destined to partake in an all-American blockbuster for the title before fatigue and injuries ruined the day. 

The third Russian woman to win a Slam that year after Anastasia Myskina and Maria Sharapova, Kuznetsova seemed to be merely another cog in the Russian revolution that was taking over women’s tennis.

However, those paying attention got a glimpse of one of the most intriguing personalities and games in the sport. The daughter of champion cyclists, Kuznetsova had moved to Spain for tennis when she was just a kid. With unrelenting power and Martina Navratilova-approved volleys, she made the transition to the pros with ease.

She loved tennis so much and was so dedicated to her success that right after her win in singles, in between the trophy presentation and the press conference, she went to the practice court. After all, she did have a doubles final the next day.

“I can express myself on the court,” Kuznetsova told the press after her win. “It's like a singer singing a song from the heart.”

At the time, it felt like the sky was the limit for the charismatic teen with the muscular legs and the lethal forehand. But a year later, suffering from burnout, she became the first female defending champion in the Open Era to lose in the first round.

"I tried my best, it wasn't my day," she said. "What do I do? Kill myself? No, I don’t.”

Since that fateful day, we’ve been reminded time and time again that there’s no use trying to pin Kuznetsova down. On and off the court, there are always surprises. 

She once showed up to a match at the French Open in cornrows because her coach had threatened to make her wear Hello Kitty clips if she didn’t get her hair out of her face. She has a tattoo that says, “Pain doesn’t kill me, I kill the pain.” She goes to Drake and Lil’ Wayne concerts with Serena Williams. 

She won one of the ugliest Grand Slam matches of the decade, a wind-blown error-fest against Anna Chakvetadze in the 2007 U.S. Open semis. She lost one of the most phenomenal Grand Slam matches of the decade, a four-hour and 44-minute marathon against Francesca Schiavone at the 2011 Australian Open. 

Roger Federer loves to watch Kuznetova play and once gave her career-altering advice, encouraging her to move back to St. Petersburg to train back in 2008 when, at only 23, she was already considering leaving the sport.

She has the talent to win every event she enters, but she also has the capability of crashing out in her opening match. Despite her many accomplishments, some know her better for her chokes than her triumphs. However, I learned the hard way that she doesn’t like to talk about her inconsistencies.

“You know, in this life, people talk a lot about stereotypes,” she said. “And that’s another stereotype—the stereotype that I have to be married, the stereotype that I have to win more matches. Whatever people believe it’s just all in the air. What does it change for me?”

One stereotype that certainly doesn’t fit Kuznetsova is one-Slam wonder. Though unpredictable, she made it to the finals of the 2006 French Open and the 2007 U.S. Open, losing to Justine Henin each time. Eventually, she did triumph again at a major tournament, the 2009 French Open.

“Nothing happens for luck,” she said. “You can’t win with luck. It’s a very hard job to win two Grand Slams. 

“From the age of 19 to 24, the women make the most changes in their life. To manage to change and still be able to win, I think is a great effort,” she said. 

“I’m a changing person, I like to change. Well, it’s not like that I like to change—I’m not doing it on purpose. But I’m kind of into everything so much. If I fall in love, I fall in love completely. If I like the rock music, I’m totally into rock. If I decide go to Moscow to live, I cannot stand Spain. If I decide something it’s 100 percent. So there had been about 20 different 100 percents in those five years.”

While some thought her 2009 French Open title might open the floodgates to further Slams, it’s seemingly done just the opposite. Her body has broken down time and time again over the past five years, and despite the occasional flash of brilliance, she’s mostly been a non-factor at the biggest stages. 

While Federer, who also won the 2004 U.S. Open (and the 2009 French Open, for that matter), ushered in an unprecedented period of stability at the top of the ATP, Kuznetsova has been the poster child for the exact opposite in the WTA. Some might say there’s been a ripple effect.

But Kuznetsova is resilient, and at 29, she’s still chasing her dreams on the court. Although she admitted that she does have trouble getting motivated to play smaller events sometimes, the passion for tennis that she had a decade ago is still there. 

“I mean, it’s not like I live and dream and wake up in the morning thinking about winning another Slam,” she said. “I love the game first of all. I love to work hard. I enjoy it, you know. I was thinking, ‘What would I miss if I quit tennis, the day I quit tennis?’ I thought, ‘To feel this joy after you win matches, this satisfaction.’ It’s unbelievable.

“This joy after you play and work hard, this satisfaction gets the good athletes, the best athletes, to keep going. This is what you love, this is what you desire more of, this is what turns me on. I want to win more matches or perhaps win tournaments or Grand Slams. Whatever. I don’t put limits to it. Whatever I can do I would be really happy about it.”

Kuznetsova ended a four-year-long title drought this summer at the Citi Open for her 14th career singles victory. She’s back up to No. 21 in the rankings, and looking more fit and focused than she has in years. “In my level of game I am there,” she said. “I can beat the Top 10. I completely believe I am there."

While dominance is great, there’s something even more admirable about persistence. This week, a rejuvenated Kuznetsova heads into the U.S. Open a decade after her maiden conquest looking to make new memories—perhaps ones she can hold onto this time.

When Kuznetsova won in 2004, Navratilova praised the Russian’s power and told Wertheim that her breakthrough “won't seem strange in a few years. She's the real deal.” While that’s certainly debatable, we’ve come to learn that most things about Kuznetsova are. Ten years later, that’s still part of her charm.

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