- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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Rafael Nadal has been asked incessantly about Roger Federer in the past few years. Almost without fail, he seems to mention Federer is No. 1 on the court and off it. Svetlana Kuznetsova could become the women's equivalent to the Swiss -- and Federer just happens to be a fan.
Kuznetsova already has the off-court bit down. When the women's tour needs the bubbly Russian, affectionately known as "Sveta," to spend time with sponsors, no problem. Tournament directors worried about late pullouts don't sweat over the 22-year-old. The week after winning the U.S. Open four years ago, for instance, she kept her word and took part in a tiny event in the Indonesian resort of Bali, sticking around to claim the title.
"I think you have to stay to your word," said the world No. 3 and the latest campaign's Indian Wells finalist. "I try to stay to it as much as I can.''
Worried about a surly response, sulking or excuses following a tough loss? Don't be.
Kuznetsova, tennis-reared at the Barcelona academy run by Spanish Davis Cup captain Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal, won't bite and doesn't show up at postmatch press conferences simply to avoid fines.
"As a human being, she's great," was how her coach, Stefan Ortega, put it.
The amount of fondness for Kuznetsova was somewhat displayed three years ago, when she was enveloped in a bizarre scandal at the Australian Open. A player tested positive for a substance banned on the women's tour at an exhibition in Belgium a month earlier, and the Belgian sports minister cleared local darling Justine Henin. That left Kuznetsova, Nathalie Dechy and Elena Dementieva.
Kuznetsova eventually admitted she was the culprit, taking a cold medicine, which may have contained ephedrine, the drug in question. There was nothing illegal about it, however, since Kuznetsova was contesting an out-of-competition event.
Larry Scott, the normally even-keeled WTA chairman and CEO (just don't get him started on equal prize money), ripped into the minister and called his actions "disgraceful." Aussie Alicia Molik, then Kuznetsova's doubles partner, was so enraged at the coverage Kuznetsova was receiving that she bought all the newspapers at her local convenience store and threw them in the garbage. (Dementieva, it should be pointed out, was ticked at Kuznetsova for not coming out earlier.)
Dechy labeled Kuznetsova one of the "friendliest" pros around at this season's Australian Open, which was echoed by Ana Ivanovic, no recluse herself. One WTA insider went further, stating Kuznetsova was "hands down" the most popular player on the circuit and never uttered a bad word about anyone.
Being friendly can be unusual in the cutthroat world of tennis, and especially in the locker room, where Kuznetsova's music -- she loves hip hop and R&B -- often blares. (Ortega has tried to convince Kuznetsova to listen to Metallica and Iron Maiden, a couple of his favorites, but she won't budge.)
"Most people are talking you up, telling you how good you are, and it's difficult to have normal relations with another player on the tour, just as a friend, because you might be kind of feeling you're giving something away if you chat to them in the changing room," said Jo Durie, a former top-five pro from England and now an analyst for Eurosport. "Svetlana will chat to anybody and is down to earth. She really enjoys tennis and is honest with herself.''
Still relatively overshadowed compared to the likes of Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters, Henin and the newest women's starlets, Ivanovic and fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic, Kuznetsova was thrust into the spotlight -- no controversies this time -- at the U.S. Open in 2004. She dropped one set and downed Dementieva in the final to cap a season of Russian domination.
Struggling with the pressure and hit by injuries, she became the first defending U.S. Open women's champion in the Open era to exit in the first round the following year.
Despite the big forehand, good serve and stellar court coverage (her version of the splits would make Kim Clijsters proud), the inconsistency remains.
In 2007, she reached the U.S. Open final but failed to advance past the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. Hardly results you'd expect from someone who ended the campaign ranked No. 2.
In 2006, Kuznetsova progressed to the Roland Garros final, and didn't get past the fourth round at the other three.
Her record in finals altogether is a sobering 9-15 (and 0-2 so far in 2008), and not once has she emerged from the round-robin stage at the year-end championships.
"Watching her as a commentator frustrates because you can see how good she is," Durie said. "Yet there are moments in matches where she seems to not be there and tactically it all goes out the window, and she thrashes about.''
Kuznetsova has a few theories about her topsy-turvy performances, though didn't disclose them. Ortega hinted that Kuznetsova's concentration at the big events isn't what it should be, and wants her to improve her footwork and finish off more points at the net. She's also a Grand Slam doubles champion.
Holding her back slightly is a lingering injury to her serving shoulder, which still isn't 100 percent.
"In Grand Slams, there are always a lot of people around you," said Ortega, who considers Kuznetsova a sister. "A lot of people ask for something. To keep people away and try to focus on only what you have to do is sometimes very difficult. I think that's why [she needs] also support from people like me and Emilio, so we can help her to be a little bit more focused.''
"I think if she was maybe as strong as Henin sometimes is [mentally], then she would be No. 1," Durie added. "She's got everything."
Federer noted Kuznetsova's abilities at last year's French Open, saying he liked her game and that "she plays well," a compliment Kuznetsova is still trying to absorb. The two recently ran into each other in Dubai, the site of back-to-back women's and men's tourneys, and had a brief chat.
"We just talked about basic stuff," Kuznetsova said. "For me it's a huge compliment what he said, and I still think about it, like, 'Oh my god, did he really say that?' Then I'm like, 'I can get some tips from him.' But I was just too shy to ask."
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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