Kuznetsova's experience trumps Vaidisova's big strokes

6/8/2006 - Tennis

PARIS -- German-born, Czech by origin and American-influenced à la Bollettieri, 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova is a walking Benetton poster. The fact that she's tall, blonde and undeniably attractive doesn't dampen her appeal to tennis fans or advertisers either.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, 20, seemed destined for athletic stardom from the womb. Her mother, Galina, was a six-time world-champion cyclist, and her father, Alexandr, coached numerous cycling champions in the former Soviet Union and is currently the coach of Russia's top cycling club, Lokomotiv.

Thursday afternoon at Roland Garros, Madison Avenue met the remnants of the former Soviet sporting apparatus in the semifinals of the French Open and substance won out over style, as Kuznetsova came back from a set and 3-5 down to beat Vaidisova 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-2, in two hours, 31 minutes.

"I mean, it's amazing, no?" said Kuznetsova. "Sometimes it comes back to you, not only going other way. It means a lot to me to be in the final here because I didn't put my hands [sic] down. I just been working."

Vaidisova will have to console herself with the notion that she exceeded all expectations coming into this tournament.

"Of course I'm disappointed," she said. "I love to win and I hate to lose. But I can be proud of how I did."

Kuznetsova, the No. 8 seed, from St. Petersburg, advances to Saturday's final against No. 5 seed Justine Henin-Hardenne, who easily cruised past No. 2 Kim Clijsters in Thursday's second semifinal.

The Russian, who trains on clay in Barcelona, looked to be in control late in the first set when she broke Vaidisova to go up 5-3. But at 30-all in the following game, the 16th-seeded Czech caught Kuznetsova cheating towards her left after a lengthy baseline rally and blasted a backhand winner to her forehand side, setting up a crucial break.

From there, Vaidisova broke Kuznetsova again to go up 6-5 and then served out the set at-love when her opponent missed a forehand. All told, she ran off a string of six consecutive games to 2-0 in the second set. The momentum was clearly hers and one could almost sense the glee of photo editors worldwide licking their chops over Vaidisova and her 1,000-megawatt smile making it to Saturday's final.

Kuznetsova had other ideas, though, and seized control late in the second set just a moment before her sell-by date.

Vaidisova got a bit nervy as she served for the match at 5-4. At 0-15, she hit a forehand that appeared close to dusting the outside of the baseline for a winner but the chair umpire, Sandra de Jenken, overruled and awarded Kuznetsova the point. The Czech covered her mouth with her hand and looked skyward for divine intervention but resumed play without uttering a word.

A subsequent forehand error gave Kuznetova two break points and then Vaidisova badly missed a second-serve to draw Kuznetsova even and give her second life.

"Serving at 5-4, you're still a long way from winning," said Vaidisova. "I don't think I got crazy-nervous. I had a bad serving game and she started getting her rhythm back. I kind of thought I had [it] a little bit."

"I knew either I win this game or I'm gonna be in Barcelona tomorrow," Kuznetsova said.

It took a tiebreaker to decide the second set, and after coming back from an early 3-1 deficit in the tie-breaker to get to 5-all, Vaidisova misfired on consecutive points to set up a decisive third set.

From there, the die was cast. Kuznetsova broke twice to go up 4-0 and then fired an ace down the middle on her first match-point to win going away.

Vaidisova, like two other smooth-stroking, easy-on-the-eye Eastern European -Ova's that preceded her -- Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova -- wants to be known for her tennis above all else, and before faltering, seemed poised to take another big step towards ensuring that's the case.

Her run to the final four here conjured memories of Sharapova's ascent to the 2004 Wimbledon title, as her combination of youthful enthusiasm, steady nerve and laser-like groundstrokes proved too tough for top-seeded Amélie Mauresmo in the round of 16 and No. 11 Venus Williams in the quarterfinals to earn her first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal.

But it will be Kuznetsova standing on Court Philippe Chatrier on Saturday, attempting to win her second Grand Slam final in as many attempts. She beat fellow Russian Elena Dementieva to win the 2004 U.S. Open and will need to get by Henin-Hardenne to add a second major to her collection.

Vaidisova didn't seem afterwards like she'd let the loss depress her. Reverting briefly from a world-class tennis player into the 17-year-old, gum-chomping girl that she is off-court, she said, "I'm just going to go home to Prague and do my thing. I don't even think I'm going to watch the finals on TV."

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.