Kuznetsova beats Safina to win French Open title
PARIS – Svetlana Kuznetsova never struck Dinara Safina as a Grand Slam champion in the making when they were kids in Russia. Kuznetsova showed up for matches toting a 2-liter bottle of soda and wearing rock band T-shirts.
As of Saturday, Kuznetsova owns two major titles – and that’s two more than Safina.
Far steadier, if not all that spectacular, Kuznetsova took advantage of the No. 1-ranked Safina’s assorted errors and won the French Open final 6-4, 6-2. Hardly a work of beauty, the 74-minute match ended, fittingly, with Safina’s seventh double-fault.
“She was too tight. She had so much pressure on her,” said Kuznetsova, who also won the 2004 U.S. Open. “I just played the match. It was just one more match. … Definitely it was a lot of emotions inside of me, but I control it.”
Not at the outset: She lost the first three points and was broken in the first game. Quickly, though, the seventh-seeded Kuznetsova took control, yanking Safina from side to side with the same powerful groundstrokes that eliminated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.
More dispiriting to Safina, perhaps, was Kuznetsova’s defense.
Time and time again, Safina – sister of two-time major champion Marat Safin – delivered a hard, well-placed shot. And time and time again, Kuznetsova scrambled to get the ball over the net. If the champion seems to have a cyclist’s strong legs, it’s because she does: Kuznetsova’s father coached her mother to six world championships and her brother to an Olympic silver medal in that sport.
On a cloudy afternoon with the temperature in the low 50s, Kuznetsova also delighted spectators by showing off her soccer skills, juggling a tennis ball off her right foot and knee for several seconds. Her best work came with her racket, and she broke back at love to make it 1-all, then again to go ahead 5-3. Safina began that eighth game with a double-fault and rolled her eyes. As mistakes accumulated, she muttered to herself or smacked her left palm with her racket.
On match point, Safina’s second serve hit the net tape and popped up, sailing beyond the doubles alley.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, my God. Double-fault,'” Kuznetsova said.
When Kuznetsova would allow herself to imagine winning the French Open, she always pictured herself dropping to the clay in joy. But the anticlimactic way this one ended didn’t call for such a celebration. Instead, Kuznetsova simply turned to make eye contact with her coach and supporters in the stands, then walked to the net for a handshake and kisses on the cheek.
At the other end of the court, Safina covered her forehead with her left hand – disbelief written all over her face – then spiked her racket.
“I was a little bit desperate on the court,” said Safina, who appeared to be fighting tears late in the match and during the on-court trophy presentation. “Didn’t stay tough mentally.”
Kuznetsova did, which hasn’t always been the case. Aside from her U.S. Open championship, also in an all-Russian final, Kuznetsova has her own history of faltering at key moments: She entered Saturday 10-18 in tournament finals.
The French Open, in particular, was the site of trouble. In 2004, Kuznetsova held a match point in the fourth round before losing. The next year, in the same round, Kuznetsova led 5-3 in the third set and held two match points before losing. And in 2007, Kuznetsova lost the final at Roland Garros to Justine Henin in straight sets.
Running through that list of setbacks, Kuznetsova noted one significant difference about Saturday.
“I was calm,” she said. “It was similar feeling when I won the U.S. Open. I cannot explain it.”
Her coach, Larisa Savchenko, surmised that maybe three difficult, three-set matches before the final – against No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska, then Williams, then No. 30 Samantha Stosur – helped settle down Kuznetsova.
“Really,” Kuznetsova insisted after accepting the champion’s trophy from six-time French Open winner Steffi Graf, “I didn’t expect it to happen this year.”
Safina was the one who was supposed to finally make her breakthrough after losing in the finals at last year’s French Open and this year’s Australian Open. Since rising to No. 1 in the rankings in April, Safina had won 20 of 21 matches, including 16 in a row.
The only woman to beat her in that span? Kuznetsova.
There are those – including Williams and Henin – who have wondered whether Safina deserves to be No. 1 if she hasn’t won a major. Safina insisted the only pressure she felt came from within.
“I really wanted to win,” she said. “I just didn’t handle it.”
About a decade ago, at age 12 or 13, Svetlana living in St. Petersburg, Dinara in Moscow, they first played each other. Dinara won in a rout. Svetlana’s highlight was asking her opponent’s older – and better-known – brother, Marat, for an autograph.
Oh, how far Kuznetsova’s come.
“Didn’t happen just by luck,” she said. “To have two Grand Slam trophies – big, you know.”
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