Commentary

Bittersweet victory for Kuznetsova

Originally Published: June 5, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- In the end, Svetlana Kuznetsova couldn't bring herself to celebrate this victory in the seconds after it was accomplished.

No falling to her knees, no tears of joy. Just vast empathy for Dinara Safina -- actually, make that sympathy.

When Safina's last, pathetic attempt at a serve clipped the net and bounced well wide, Kuznetsova didn't even smile. She walked slowly to the net, saw the tears in Safina's eyes and kissed her fellow Russian on both red cheeks.

"I could not react," Kuznetsova said later Saturday. "I was like, 'Oh my God, double fault.' Before I was imagining I'm going to go down on the floor if I win Roland Garros -- in my dreams.

"Hey, I could not do it today."

After shaking hands with the chair umpire, Kuznetsova calmly stowed her racket and walked back on the court, and finally, a smile crept across her face. She was a 6-4, 6-2 winner in the final at Roland Garros, marking her second Grand Slam title.

"I know you wanted more," Kuznetsova said, poignantly addressing Safina during the trophy ceremony, "and definitely you will get it one day. Sorry for that."

It was, incredibly, the third time in the past five Grand Slam finals in which Safina was the loser.

She won just seven games here last year against Ana Ivanovic and only three against Serena Williams earlier this year in Melbourne. She won the warm-up tournaments in Rome and Madrid, but something happens to the 23-year-old when she reaches the last match at a major.

Safina remains the world's No. 1-ranked player, but clearly, this will take some time to get over.

Kuznetsova was asked about Safina's inability to play loose, uninhibited tennis.

"I don't want to talk for her," Kuznetsova said. "She plays with too much pressure. This is what I want to say."

Too much pressure?

"Pressure I put on myself," Safina said, still sounding sad, "because I really wanted to win. Didn't stay tough, mentally. She was not so aggressive as she usually is, I just didn't do anything."

The key for Kuznetsova? Not thinking too much.

"Today when I was coming on the court, I knew everything was going to be OK," Kuznetsova said in her on-court interview. "I knew I was going to take it out of my head and just play my tennis."

An hour later, she added: "I was calm. I cannot explain it. It was same when I was going on the court in [the 2004] U.S. Open. I came out there and said, 'Everything's great. I'm enjoying.'"

Championship finals are anticipated but so often fail to deliver on that great expectation.

The recent history of the women's final at the French Open is particularly wretched; this was the eighth consecutive time the final here was decided in two sets.

Given the nature of the combatants, you had a sense it might turn out this way.

Safina and Kuznetsova had played in a collective five Grand Slam finals and had come away with a single title: Kuznetsova's victory at the 2004 U.S. Open. Even that result was somewhat tainted since it came against Elena Dementieva, a famously fragile player who has yet to win a major. Safina had failed to win even a set in trying to punctuate runs here a year ago and in this year's Australian Open.

[+] EnlargeDinara Safina
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty ImagesDinara Safina has yet to win a set in three Grand Slam finals.

Kuznetsova, it should be pointed out, had been to 28 previous finals -- and managed to win only 10.

Well, someone had to win.

While Safina was whistling along through the draw, the weather was generally warm (mid- to upper 70s) and windy. The ball was flying off her racket and she lost only five games in her first four matches.

Saturday dawned cold and wet and windless. By match time (3 p.m.), the rain had stopped, but the Court Philippe Chatrier was soggy and unbearably slow -- blunting Safina's advantage of sheer power and giving the more fluid Kuznetsova an opportunity to exploit Safina's sometimes lurching movement. And that's how the first set played out. Kuznetsova's superior defense -- and her ability to move Safina from side to side as well as forward with short balls -- kept her in rallies long enough for Safina to break down.

The turning point came in the eighth game of the first set, when Kuznetsova forged three break points. She needed all of them. On the last, a terrific backhand landed in the pock-marked territory along the baseline and skidded under Safina's racket.

That break held up and Kuznetsova was in a commanding position. Trouble was, Kuznetsova had won the first set in her previous three matches -- against Agnieszka Radwanska, Serena Williams and Samantha Stosur -- only to lose the second.

But instead of withering away, Kuznetsova stood her ground, while Safina fell completely out of the match. The look on her face grew increasingly anxious, and when Kuznetsova broke her again, decisively, to take a 4-2 lead, Safina's expression was something well past stricken.

Ultimately, the more complete player won. Safina stroked seven double faults in the 74-minute match and had her serve broken four of nine times. She took so much off her first serve in an attempt to get it in that Kuznetsova actually finished with a higher average speed (96 miles per hour) on her first serve.

Why, Safina was asked, did she play the way she did?

"If I [had an] explanation," she said, sighing, "of course I would do it on court."

Is it a matter of learning to relax in the big moments?

"Yeah," Safina said, "this I have to still learn."

Twice previously here, Kuznetsova held two match points on the eventual champion. Twice, in 2004 and 2005, she lost, to Anastasia Myskina and Justine Henin. This time, she converted the only match point she had.

And a few minutes later, Kuznetsova texted with friends during the trophy presentation ceremony, but not when Steffi Graf handed her the silver cup.

"I've been waiting for this moment for a very long time," Kuznetsova said. "Really, I didn't expect it to happen this year. I played with all my heart. It's my favorite tournament, and I'm happy to win it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.