The legend of Svetlana Kuznetsova just continues to grow

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Now 2-0 and headed to the semifinals, Svetlana Kuznetsova is hitting from the heart in Singapore. (AP)

“What bothers me, I take out,” Svetlana Kuznetsova said after her comeback win over Agnieszka Radwanska at the WTA Finals in Singapore earlier this week.

Kuznetsova was referring to her ponytail, some of which she unceremoniously chopped off in the middle of that match. But her explanation makes for a pretty good motto for life, don’t you think?

The concept has certainly been working for Sveta lately. After qualifying at—almost literally—the last minute for the Finals, she has proceeded to take out Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova in laboriously dramatic fashion this week. In the first match, Kuznetsova was one point from defeat; in the second, she was two points from defeat. Both times she survived her opponents’ good late play, and her own late nerves, to win. In total, the 31-year-old Russian has been on court for five hours and six minutes this week, and she has done it all after winning the title in Moscow and flying 11 hours to play the next day in Singapore.

“Where is this coming from?” Kuznetsova was asked after her 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) win over Pliskova.

“From my heart,” Kuznetsova said. “Something changed this year. I enjoy my game.”

“I couldn’t let everyone down!” she told the crowd in Singapore.

The legend of Svetlana Kuznetsova just keep growing. Sixteen years after making her pro debut, and four years after dropping to 72nd in the world, Kuznetsova is back in the Top 10. She has won major titles in her career—the 2004 U.S. Open and the 2009 French Open—and she finished the 2007 season at No. 2 in the world. Now, in her 30s, Kuznetsova’s dogged persistence in the face of age and anxiety has made her a cult figure among tennis fans. That, and the fact that she’s the type of person who has no problem giving herself a haircut in the middle of a match. Sveta isn’t a brand; she’s a character.

Unlike her countrywoman, Maria Sharapova, she isn’t a media darling or a bankable star. Kuznetsova remains a player, a week-to-week grinder, and all the years she has spent figuring out ways to beat younger opponents has made her an interesting one to watch. You could see that in the way she came back to beat the 24-year-old Pliskova after losing the first set. Kuznetsova’s legs looked predictably dead to start, and no one would have been surprised if she had gone out quickly in the second. Instead, Kuznetsova did what she does best: work, grind, dig, surprise and find ways to take her opponent out of her game.

“That’s the perfect point,” Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport said after Kuznetsova came out on top of a long rally early in the third set. “Moving Pliskova side to side, withstanding a couple of blows, but just working the point.”

Afterward, Pliskova said that Kuznetsova is tough because she can hit her ground strokes crosscourt or down the line equally well, so there’s nowhere you can lean. And while Kuznetsova   rarely produces Radwanskian magic with her racquet, she can do all the essentials with it. Returning up 2-1 in the third set, Kuznetsova won a long point. She started it by blocking and slicing the ball back, before turning the tables and backing Pliskova up with heavy topspin forehands. A few points later, Kuznetsova broke serve by lasering an inside-out forehand return winner. Unlike many of today’s pros, she knows there’s more than one way to win a point.

Of course, Kuznetsova has also learned a few ways to lose them, too. She got tight down the stretch as Pliskova picked up her game and stormed back from 1-4 down to lead 6-5, 30-0. Then it was Pliskova’s turn to get tight. Back and forth the two women went through the tiebreaker. Kuznetsova built a 6-3 lead and then set about unbuilding it, as Pliskova saved all three match points to knot it at 6-6. Finally, on her fourth match point, Kuznetsova let fly with a backhand down the line that found the corner and sent her to her first season-ending semifinals.

It was a shot that had to come from the heart, because that was all Sveta had left. 

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