Three-time Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova scored the first big upset of the tournament on Tuesday when she rallied from a set down to reel off seven straight games en route to a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 stunner over top seed Elina Svitolina.
"I haven't been playing too well when competing, but today I was fighting and trying to accept that I can't deliver the game I've been able to play on the practice court," the hyper-critical Kuznetsova confessed after the match.
The former world No. 2 had lost her last three matches to the Ukrainian—most recently in straight sets at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia last fall—but fended off a late surge from Svitolina to secure victory after one hour and 48 minutes on Center Court.
A mercurial presence on the WTA tour for nearly two decades, the two-time Grand Slam champion showed flashes of her best form just before the COVID-19 lockdown, reaching the semifinals of the Qatar Total Open last February, but struggled through the initial resumption, winning back-to-back matches just once in her subsequent six tournaments.
"I can't go back, but I was playing good and in a great situation, with a full year ahead of me, and looking forward to getting points. The situation has changed, and now I'm not playing so good! But I'm still here, still alive, and I still can play."
Pandemic restrictions plagued her pre-season, and was also among the players forced into strict quarantine ahead of the Australian Open, where she still managed to make the second round and push Belinda Bencic to three sets.
"It was the worst pre-season I'd ever had, honestly! It was hard to bring my coaches to Russia, and I couldn't leave. I had injuries and other issues, and so I ended up with only two or three weeks to prepare; I usually have six to eight. If all of this happened two years ago, I might have quit playing, but right now, I'm in such a positive momentum, I'm looking forward to getting my game back together and win matches."
Starting the week by defeating Wang Qiang in her first match, she nonetheless fell behind early against Svitolina, who reached the quarterfinals in Doha last week.
"I was feeling so stressed out there. In the first set, I couldn't make any balls and the feeling was just very terrible. I was focusing on trying to just make two or three shots in, and see how I can regroup. I wasn't thinking so much about being down as much as trying to make the ball in the court."
The 35-year-old dropped serve for a third time to start the second set, but quickly broke back and took advantage of what Svitolina described as some inopportune “safe play” to level the contest at a set apiece.
“I think it cost me a set because otherwise things were quite equal at that point,” Svitolina said in her post-match press conference. “We’ve played many times, and for sure I knew her game and that she’s a big fighter. I was expecting she would come back stronger in the second set, but unfortunately, I couldn’t respond with a good game.”
Kuznetsova maintained her momentum in the decider to race ahead 5-0, and though Svitolina saved a pair of match points on her own serve, the Russian would not be denied and clinched the upset on her third opportunity in the following game.
“She’s always been a great fighter,” Svitolina said. “She runs down lots of balls. She fights and it doesn’t matter what the score is. She’s always playing with a good attitude. I remember when she won her Grand Slams; she was fighting and giving all she could to win the match. That, I think, is what makes her such a champion.”
Kuznetsova could get a Melbourne rematch with Bencic—who survived a three-set tussle with Veronika Kudermetova earlier in the day—in the quarterfinals, but will first have to play Barbora Krejcikova after the former WTA doubles No. 1 knocked out 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3, 6-1. A five-time Grand Slam champion in women’s and mixed doubles, Krejcikova’s singles surge began in earnest last fall when she made the second week of Roland Garros.
"I don't think age matters," Kuznetsova said. "I don't feel like I'm not as fit as the other girls. I have my experience, and yes, I have to deal with my emotions, nerves, and other mental things, but it's always been like this. I have no doubts I can compete against the best.
"It's not an easy life, but we're privileged to earn good money by playing. You have to be good and sacrifice a lot of things, but if you were to tell me at 25 I would still be here at 35, I would say, 'Never.' There were months where I was at home, injured, and didn't want to play. I'd say, 'Thank God, I'm not at the US Open.' But time passes, and I ask myself, 'What do I do best?' I want to be successful and I'm used to being successful at what I do, and starting something new is a risk. I have a few options, but I realized I can't start a new chapter without stopping this one."
Where Svitolina couldn’t course correct in her final set, No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova had more success against Anastasija Sevastova, shaking off a missed match point second set tie-break to solve the Latvian, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2.
"I thought I could win much faster, but at least I don't have to practice today because if it had been two sets, I may have had to!" Pliskova joked in her post-match press conference. "It can give me some extra strength that I was able to fight back after an unfortunate second set, find my way in the third and play good tennis after that."
The former world No. 1 will aim to avenge a Doha defeat to Jessica Pegula next after the American earned a third straight win on Kristina Mladenovic, 6-1, 6-2.
"In Australia, I played back-to-back with Danielle Collins, so I think the main thing about playing the same player two weeks in a row is that it will be tough for them to repeat the matches they played the first time. Pegula played great last week in Doha and is obviously playing quite okay at every tournament. She's confident, so it definitely won't be easy, but we'd never played before last week, so there may be some things about which I can be more careful. It's also a completely different tournament, so I just hope to be better because I was super tired and not really ready last time we played."
Around the grounds, reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to six in a row after winning the Adelaide International to end the Australian summer swing, defeating Misaki Doi, 6-2, 6-4, and will next face an in-form Garbiñe Muguruza for a spot in the last eight. In a strong section of the draw, No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka eased past Alizé Cornet, 6-2, 6-4, and will next take on No. 15 seed Anett Kontaveit after a 6-4, 7-5 win over Sorana Cirstea. Doha champion Petra Kvitova's shot at a Middle East double came to a disappointing finish when she was forced to retire down a set to Swiss Jil Teichmann.