Commentary

Unfulfilled potential has Kuznetsova looking for answers

Svetlana Kuznetsova's attitude and aptitude are unassailable. But despite a big game and striking pedigree, recent struggles have some suggesting the Russian talent is at her career crossroads.

Originally Published: October 24, 2008
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Svetlana KuznetsovaDima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty ImagesShe's come close, but Svetlana Kuznetsova has incurred a lot of criticism for her inability to win finals.
It came as no surprise last week when the WTA Tour announced that Svetlana Kuznetsova qualified for the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, which will take on a new look at its new digs in Doha, Qatar, early next month.

In keeping careful tabs on the Race to the Sony Ericsson Championships as one does during the fall season, it was fairly evident that unless something went seriously awry, Kuznetsova would make the grade. Indeed, she became the sixth player behind Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Elena Dementieva and Ana Ivanovic to make the field, with two more players still to qualify. History was in Kuznetsova's corner in this endeavor -- she has been a fixture at the event four of the past five years, only missing out on competing in 2005.

But the question that is impossible not to ask is: What will Kuznetsova do with another opportunity at the year-end Championships?

Outgoing off the court, the 23-year-old tends to struggle when it comes to critical matches deep into tournaments. Able to put herself in position to shine brightly, she struggles to capitalize on those opportunities -- evidenced by losing 10 of her past 11 final matches. Of course, Kuznetsova has had her moments, most notably when she dazzled at the 2004 U.S. Open. And she also reached the US. Open final in 2007 and the French Open final in 2006, but she was unable to push opponent Justine Henin to a third set in either of those matches.

Kuznetsova's problems are not caused by technique, but rather stem from what seems to be a lack of self-assuredness. The U.S. Open victory turned out to be a rare example of how great things can happen when she couples a positive attitude with her aptitude for the game.

"When she won the Open, she almost seemed like mindless; she just attacked, attacked, attacked," said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo. "She didn't think about it -- she would win her matches and then go off and practice. She was in this unbelievable groove and with confidence and rhythm. I don't think she ever questioned herself."

There's no doubt Kuznetsova is a reliable competitor -- she has a knack for reaching the later rounds at tournaments most weeks. And for most players, those results would be more than satisfying. However, when consistently playing from the comfort of top-10 territory, loftier expectations should follow.

Kuznetsova, the 2001 International Tennis Federation Junior World Champion, was earmarked for success early on. While she is still in her early 20s, it seems as if she has been around the game forever, causing many to charge she could be turning into an underachiever.

A glance at her 2008 performance would leave many top players frustrated enough to tear the hair out of their heads, especially in a season that was wide-open for a number of players, including Kuznetsova, to go to the head of the WTA Tour class. On paper, Kuznetsova's 44-18 win-loss record for the year seems solid. But she went 0-5 in finals at Sydney, Dubai, Indian Wells, Tokyo and Beijing, losing all five matches to fellow top 10 opponents -- three of whom were ranked No. 1 at the time of the matches.

There is much speculation on whether Kuznetsova can ratchet up her game to a superstar level. Is she able to clearly define the player she should be? Is she similar to Kim Clijsters, someone who enjoyed competition but often was too nice to possess the necessary killer instinct? And big picture, is she suffering from an identity crisis?

Kuznetsova, who has won nine career titles, has a well-rounded game with the ability to be a take-charge player on the court, a talent she frequently shies away from using. In Carillo's estimation, she's capable of "breaking open a point with a big shot." But Carillo also notes Kuznetsova comes across as someone with a "sense of confusion" in terms of what style of tennis she should be playing.

The outgoing Russian was born into a family packed with athletic genes. Except for Svetlana, the family passion is cycling, which she initially tried before selecting tennis as her mission. Her father, Alexandr Kuznetsov, coached six Olympic champions; her mother, Galina Tsareva, was a six-time world champion with 20 world records; and her brother, Nikolai Kuznetsov, was a silver medalist at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Kuznetsova inherited the family's competitive nature but pays a price for not always being a win-at-all-costs personality.

[+] EnlargeSvetlana Kuznetsova
Timothy Clary/Getty ImagesSvetlana Kuznetsova was earmarked for superstardom after winning the 2004 U.S. Open title.
As the season looks to come to a close, Kuznetsova appears to be at a crossroads, which has led her to some major life changes. After spending most of her time since age 14 based in Spain at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, where she has worked with Stefan Ortega as well as having the ear of academy owner, Emilio Sanchez, and his sister, four-time Grand Slam champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, she's returning to her Russian roots.

She's moving back to the motherland -- planning to spend time with her family in St. Petersburg, the city where she was born. Kuznetsova will be primarily headquartered in Moscow, working with new coach, Olga Morozova, a finalist to Chris Evert at the 1974 French Open and Wimbledon.

In a statement released last week, Kuznetsova said, "I would especially like to thank Emilio Sanchez for his belief in me and making me into the player I am today and also my longtime coach, Stefan Ortega. I feel that I have got to a stage in my life now that I would like for personal reasons to return to my family in my homeland and continue developing my tennis career."

A cheery sort who often can be seen bopping along to the music from her iPod, Kuznetsova is understandably not a first-string player in the WTA Tour's publicity and tends to get lost in the shuffle among key players -- Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Serena and Venus Williams.

Morozova could be an ideal change of pace for Kuznetsova. Hearing a new voice after so many years could shake things up. And the coaching switch might also bring the nurturing support of a mother or big-sister figure, which could shore up Kuznetsova's self-reliance.

"Olga will hopefully help her to impose her game a little bit more," Carillo said. "Maybe one of the reasons she's moving back to Russia is to find out answers to the question, 'Who am I and what am I trying to be?' She has a lot of game, but she doesn't seem to have a lot of confidence."

Though many would characterize Kuznetsova as having a well-heeled career, others would rightly insist she hasn't fulfilled her potential. Maybe heading home to rekindle her Russian persona and work with a new Russian coach will bring out the best in Kuznetsova.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.