SYDNEY – Two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova just returned to the WTA after six months off the tour, and while other Russian elite players of her generation called it quits early, she has not intention of doing so.
Kuznetsova won her first Grand Slam in 2004 at the US Open. The same year, Russian Anastasia Myskina won Rolland Garros, beating another Russian, Elena Dementieva, in the final. In 2009, Kuznetsova won her second major, this time over Dinara Safina, whom all the Russian players knew as the little kid who used to run around the courts while her mother Raisa coached at Moscow’s famous Spartak Club.
All those women are now back in Moscow, and none of them are playing anymore. Myskina is a mother of two and a TV host who retired prematurely due to a foot injury. Dementieva retired at the end of 2011 and is married to a hockey player and has plans to start a family. In 2011, former No. 1 Safina suffered what might end up being a career-ending back injury, and she has not indicated when and if she will ever return.
But the 27-year-old Kuznetsova, who might be the most introspective of all of them and has questioned what she chose playing tennis as a career on more than one occasion, has returned to the courts with a great amount of enthusiasm. She didn’t badly miss tennis during her time off, but she was ready to compete again.
“I felt like I have so much under me more to do in tennis,” she said after taking down Caroline Wozniacki in three stets at the Apia Sydney International. “I will have time to stay at home after my career. I just need time break. I feel like I love the game and I have no reasons to stop. I had the break. I love to work. I love to sweat on the court. I like to put everything to get over myself day by day when you’re in the heat where you’re struggling. I didn’t want to stop anyway. Myskina stop because of the baby or whatever. Dementieva stopped because she decided to stop. My time is a not to stop yet.”
Kuznetsova has always been a very an out front person, whether she was playing extremely well or badly. That is not to say that she always understood why she was feeling a certain way, or knew how to get out of tough spots.
Back in the summer of 2005, a year after she won the US Open, she fell into a terrible slump. She could not keep the ball in the court and was frequently becoming overwhelmed with nerves. She was carefree and lethal the year prior, but now she was known player, a competitor who was supposed to consistently win big matches, someone who was being talked about as a potential multiple Grand Slam winner. And she was downright miserable.
Sometime during the middle of the now defunct Los Angeles tournament, I had covered a late night session, drove back to the hotel, turned into the underground garage and was hit by waves of pop music coming out of a van. Two young women were partying it up, dancing around the vehicle with the windows and doors wide open. Sitting across from them on the floor of the garage with her back against pillar was Kuznetsova, looking very sad.
I parked, walked back to toward the exit, and one of the other women pulled me over to dance. Knowing “Sveta” was sitting there and figuring it was friend of hers, I did so, if only for a few seconds.
Then the reigning US Open champ motioned me over and told me of her emotional ills, which she said were numerous, but they were ones common to young successful people having an early 20s existential crisis. I did not want to patronize her, so I mostly listened, told her that most people have their ups and downs and that as long as she was actively thinking about why she was feeling a certain way and trying to come to solutions, that there would be better days.
And there were, many of them. She never became a dominant player, but continued be very good one, although she remained an enigma. On a great days, she was threat to every elite player, including the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and the Belgians, even though her record against all of them was not exactly stellar.
She was fast and powerful enough to take it to all comers when she was in a great frame of mind, which she admits was not every day, much less week. She’s the only player in recent memory to upend Serena Williams in the second week of a Slam when the now 15-times Grand Slam champion was up a break in the third set, when she outlasted her at 2009 Roland Garros. That was a hell of victory and it was capped off by her second major title, which in my mind makes her a lock for the International Hall of Fame after she retires.
But in the past three years, Kuznetsova grew tired of the grind, and it seemed to get worse and worse. But she didn’t lose her adoration for the sport, which is why she’s still here.
“When you play over and over every year the same tournament, the same players, it’s quite difficult, “ she said. “I never feel sick of the game because I love tennis a lot. I have been sick from travel and sick from staying away from home, from my family, from my friends. But I never hated tennis. I love tennis and I enjoy tennis. [But] I have not been missing it at all. Now I’m back, I feel fresh, and I feel like I want to play. But I been watching matches, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to be out there. I needed very good rest. When I was one months, two months, three months, I was like, ‘Oh, I think I need to work. I need to have a goal. Like this I had no goal.’ I was just relax edand it was good for me, but I think the most important thing in the life is to have a goal off the court, on the court, so your life be going somewhere. If you stop having goal, your life just freezes in the same position.
So what is her goal now? Whether she wins the title in Sydney or not she will enter the Australian Open unseeded. She qualified for Sydney and has already played five matches and is wearing a big wrap around her left thigh.
Is Kuznetsova actually capable of going into the tournament unseeded and going deep? Possibly, but it’s not probable.
What she is capable of doing if she as fresh and eager as she says she is becoming an elite player again at some point later in the year. And that will be a very good thing for the sport, because she’s beloved in the locker room and even though she’s more than a decade into her career, she’s breath of fresh air for the sport.