Serena succumbs to Sveta

6/4/2009 - Tennis

PARIS -- Four months ago, Svetlana Kuznetsova found herself serving for a place in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

She led Serena Williams 7-5, 5-3, but somewhere on the way to victory, the powerful Russian lost her nerve. Williams won 10 of the last 11 games, leaving Kuznetsova utterly Down Under.

The match confirmed the prevailing wisdom that Williams is mentally the toughest player on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour since Justine Henin's retirement -- and that Kuznetsova is, perhaps, on the other end of that spectrum.

On Wednesday, Kuznetsova was front-running again, leading 7-6 (3) and 5-3 at Roland Garros, serving for the match when the familiar meltdown scenario began to repeat itself like a bad burrito. Williams won the next four games to take the set and appeared destined for the semifinals.

But instead of imploding, Kuznetsova exploded all over Williams. Her furious forehand bent but never broke; at times, in the midst of the really important points, she actually had Williams looking hesitant.

Thus, Kuznetsova took down Williams 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5 in a terrific match that required two hours and 46 minutes.

"Honestly, I think I lost because of me and not because of anything she did," Williams said in a flat voice. "In the third [set], I had an opportunity, and I got really tight, and I pretty much gave it to her. It was like, 'Here, do you want to go to the semis? Because I don't.'

"She was like, 'OK.'"

Serena Williams, 10-time Grand Slam champion, tight?

"I haven't gotten tight since 2007, in Australia," she said. "Maybe I put some expectations on myself that I didn't put on myself initially. I started hitting a lot of short balls, and my arm locked up a little bit.

"It was what it was."

What it was, was the end of Williams' streak of 18 Grand Slam match wins -- she is the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion -- and the loss of her opportunity to regain the No. 1 ranking from Dinara Safina. Gone, too, is the chance for another Serena Slam or even a conventional, same-year Grand Slam.

Kuznetsova broke Williams' serve to open the match, then did it again to take a 3-0 lead. Williams broke back immediately and again at 4-5. It looked like she might take the set, but Kuznetsova saved a set point with a well-constructed point that was finished with an overhead.

The tiebreaker was instructive. On serve at 1-2, Kuznetsova broke it open. She backed up and sent a second serve across the nest for a severely angled forehand winner, then hit an off-balance backhand down the line for another. One last forehand winner from the Russian left Williams slumped in her changeover chair, with closed eyes, no doubt trying to conjure a happier image.

Kuznetsova was leading the second set 4-1 when she received the kiss of death.

"No sign of Sveta yet," New York Times scribe Chris Clarey said in the Philippe Chatrier media room.

Sure enough, the Kuznetsova familiar to all began to emerge.

She missed an easy slam and allowed Williams to hold. Serving at 4-2, she rolled her right ankle, took a tumble and came up thoroughly filthy. A backhand down the line broke her, but she broke Williams back with a gorgeous backhand service return for a winner down the line.

At 5-3, serving for the match, Kuznetsova sprayed a backhand long, giving Williams the game and some room to maneuver. She was broken for the second straight time when a backhand hit the net.

Williams won the set with a resounding ace, and the Court Suzanne Lenglen crowd grew very quiet indeed; it had seen this match before. So had Kuznetsova.

Two previous failures here at Roland Garros must be burned in her brain. In 2004, Kuznetsova held two match points against fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina, the eventual champion -- and lost. In 2005, Kuznetsova held two match points against Henin, the eventual champion -- and lost.

"She was afraid to win the match -- that was very clear," Henin said at the time.

But on this occasion, Kuznetsova avoided becoming French toast. Even though she squandered two match points with Williams serving at 4-5, she never got down on herself. She converted the third match point with one, last, big forehand, which Williams couldn't keep in the court.

Kuznetsova was asked whether she was haunted by the result in Melbourne.

"Yes, a little bit," she said. "In the third set it was tough, but still I convinced I can make it. In the bottom of my heart, I still believe that I with play. I was doing great. I wasn't playing bad.

"Yes, I missed my moments, but she also was playing good. She served good in important moments, and I still believe I was fighting.

"So that was the key."

At 27, Williams was, interestingly, the oldest to reach the women's quarterfinals. She played two scratchy, three-set matches coming in, and when she departed after five matches, she had spent more than nine hours on the court. Afterward, she said she wasn't tired.

In the other quarterfinal from the lower half of the draw, No. 30 seed Samantha Stosur defeated Sorana Cristea 6-1, 6-3.

It was a career best for Stosur, the first female Australian to reach the semifinals in 21 years, going back to Nicole Provis in 1988. It's been a nice comeback for Stosur, who missed the last half of the 2007 season and the first three months of 2008 due to illness.

"Just over the moon, happy, excited," Stosur said when asked to describe her emotions. "Every single positive emotion I think possible at the moment."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.