Svetlana, we hardly knew you
NEW YORK -- Svetlana Kuznetsova seemed to see this one coming.
"Last year was very hard," Kuznetsova said the day before she opened the defense of her 2004 U.S. Open title. "I travel a lot, I had a lot of pressure and stuff.
"Last year was a big breakthrough, and this year I couldn't make it so good also. It's a bit difficult [and] my body still may be not ready to do the same job as it did last year."
On Monday, Kuznetsova did the unthinkable. She lost to Ekaterina Bychkova, the No. 97-ranked player on the WTA Tour, 6-3, 6-2.
"Of course I'm disappointed to lose that match," Kuznetsova said. "But things happen like this. It's happened to many top players, they lose the first round."
Actually, in the 125-year history of the U.S. Open this had never happened. Kuznetsova was the first female defending champion to lose in the first round. Ever. That's a heavy piece of history.
The worst previous ouster of a women's defending champion: In 1967 Maria Bueno lost in the second round to Kristy Pigeon -- and she defaulted with tendinitis in her right arm.
A year ago, Kuznetsova won the championship here at the National Tennis Center. She was only 19, her teeth wired with braces. She ran through a Who's Who list of opponents -- Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport and Elena Dementieva -- for her first Grand Slam championship. She won the next week in Bali, made the final a week later in Beijing and finished the year as the No. 5-ranked player on the WTA Tour -- quite a leap from No. 36. And then
well, as Kuznetsova said, she couldn't make 2005 so good.
"Last year I played lots of tournaments," she said. "That's why I was in great shape and I was doing well. But maybe this year it wasn't the key to play so much. Maybe it was better to plan the calendar. You just cannot keep playing like 32 events a year.
"I know how you feel when you just don't have and gas and you can't go any more."
Kuznetsova hasn't won a single tournament this year and few considered her a threat to repeat here. Her record at the three previous Grand Slams was credible: She lost to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, to Henin-Hardenne in the fourth round of the French Open and to Davenport in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. But her summer has been dismal.
She has won just two matches in her last four tournaments. At her most recent, the Rogers Cup in Toronto, she wrenched her back in a third-round loss to Gisela Dulko. After Monday's match, she said the condition of her back was not an issue. Too bad, for it might have explained her staggering -- sometimes literally -- 45 unforced errors in a 65-minute match (you can do the math), contrasted by only 15 winners. She was broken no fewer than six times and seemed oddly detached at times.
On the match's final point, she stepped into a two-handed backhand with an expression somewhere between nonchalant and utter defeat. Naturally, it sailed long and Bychkova, like Kuznetsova a 20-year-old Russian, had the biggest win of her career -- in her first Grand Slam main draw singles match. Bychkova's only victory this season came at the ITF tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she took home $2,940 as the top prize. On Monday, she guaranteed herself at least $25,000, even if she loses her second-round match against Ivana Lisjak.
For Kuznetsova, though, it isn't about the money. She won more than $2 million last year and is closing in on $1 million in 2005. No, this is about respect and how she will be judged during her career. Kuznetsova has proved she's a top 10 player -- although her No. 5 ranking will deteriorate precipitously by the end of the year -- but is she a legitimate multi-Grand Slam champion?
The pressure to repeat her first major title was crushing. But, then again, she's only 20 -- the age of a typical college sophomore.
"I think I get more pressure than attention, because every time they asking like, from this year, January, 'What do you think abut defending your title?'" Kuznetsova said. "It takes awhile to play with pressure. Just on the same things where they're coming to you, just stay the same and play the same.
"Of course, any time you have ups and downs, you know. Now, I'm a bit down, so I think is going to be some up in there. I just want to have some time off and just start it again. I really believe I'm going to do well again," she said.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.