In vintage, 11th-hour Sveta style, Kuznetsova returns to center stage

In vintage, 11th-hour Sveta style, Kuznetsova returns to center stage

The two-time major singles champion's resurrection in Cincinnati this week has been unconventional, even by her standards.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Svetlana Kuznetsova said this week at the Western & Southern Open. “You know, I expect any result.”

By now, nothing should surprise us about Kuznetsova, either. The 34-year-old Russian has been on tour since the turn of the century, and she has pretty much seen and done it all. She’s won two major titles, and been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world. She’s been around long enough to have played doubles with Martina Navratilova, played Justine Henin in Grand Slam finals, and traveled up and down the rankings more times than she can remember. Every year or so, just when you think she can’t possibly make another comeback, she shows up and beats everyone in town.

But Sveta’s latest resurrection in Cincy has been unconventional—astounding, really—even by her standards. She began the summer by losing in the first round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Then she was temporarily unable to secure a visa to play in the U.S., which meant she couldn’t defend her title at the Citi Open in D.C., which meant her ranking plummeted even farther. But a wild card in Cincinnati was all she needed, apparently.

This week she has beaten four players who were seeded in the Top 11, and she has done it in vintage, 11th-hour Sveta style. She beat Anastasia Sevastova 6-4 in the third set. She saved match points and beat Dayana Yastremska 6-2 in the third set. She was down a set and 3-5 to Karolina Pliskova before winning 6-3 in the third. And just for fun, she also beat Sloane Stephens, 6-1, 6-2, and Ashleigh Barty, Saturday, 6-2, 6-4.

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How does Kuznetsova explain it? She says that not playing for a month left her with no expectations, and thus no worries.

“Now I just feel different inside,” she said after beating Stephens. “You know, I’m just happy and I just try to take things simple and just play each point. It comes to this, anyway.”

There are times when you watch Kuznetsova play that you get the feeling she’s simply not going to let herself lose, no matter how bad the score gets, or how weary she looks, or how slowly she walks between points. I had that sense while watching her against Pliskova, and sure enough, even though the Czech appeared to be in control up until 5-4 in the second set, Kuznetsova found a way, with a crucial backhand pass, to break her in the nick of time.

Then there are other times when you watch Kuznetsova and you marvel at her tennis IQ, and all of subtle ways she makes life impossible for her opponents. Saturday was one of those days. Kuznetsova left Barty, who has been the WTA’s player of the year so far, at a loss for what to do. The Aussie—who admittedly wasn’t helping herself by making just 50 percent of her first serves—even resorted to a rare on-court call to her coach, Craig Tyzzer. He warned her not to “get caught in [Kuznetsova’s] type of rally, where she’s dictating from the middle of the court.” But Barty never found an escape.

In truth, it’s hard to define what Kuznetsova’s “type of rally” is, because she doesn’t fit into any of the normal tennis-player categories. She can be a grinder who hits with heavy topspin. She can be a scrambler who seemingly gets her racquet on everything. She can be a net-rusher who knows how to hit slice approaches and knock off high volleys. Often, she’s all of these things at once over the course of a single point.

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Against Barty, Kuznetsova did a little bit of everything, and did it all masterfully. She won many of her points by defending first, and then turning the tables and going on offense in the middle of the rally. She won others with perfect passing shots, others with nice stretch volleys, others with heavy topspin forehands, others with biting underspin backhands. The only thing she didn’t do was win a point with a tweener—Kuznetsova tried one, but sent it wide. As Barty said to her coach, most of the time she was just too good today, even for a top seed.

A few weeks ago, Kuznetsova was wondering if she would be able to travel to the States. Now she’s in the Cincinnati final, and giving lessons to her younger colleagues on the art of tennis. That’s the Sveta way. She’s been around too long to think that anything is beyond her.

Earlier in the week, Kuznetsova was asked how it felt to have been on tour for so long.

“I let this go, otherwise, it’s impossible,” she said. “If I let all the facts, this tournament would be very difficult.”

“Just play,” she said, “and just enjoying.”