ROLAND GARROS, JUNE 4– It’s been five years since the summer of the Russian women, and finally, two of them have showed up again in a Slam final, one with load of experience and the other one chock full of ability.
On Saturday, Svetlana Kuznetsova will meet Dinara Safina in what should be a fantastic Roland Garros final, as it will feature the season’s two most accomplished clay court players, and two women who have been through enough wars not to freeze up when their names are called to go on court.
On Saturday, Kuznetsova overcame a hearty challenge by Samantha Stosur 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3, while Safina put down the spunky Dominica Cibulkova 6-3, 6-3.
Safina had to work hard in a sideline-to-sideline match that belied the scores, as the small but strong Slovakian matched her blow for blow, but was unable to match her nerve during the big points.
In a hard fought and often-brilliant semifinal, Kuznetsova shook off the ill feelings that she had after failing to close out the match in the second set and came through behind a powerful and gutsy attack.
The two first met as juniors, when Kuznetsova was a mid level player from Ste Petersburg and Safina was the top player out of her mother Raisa’s program at the Spartak Club.
“ I was like 12 or 13, and Dinara was unbelievable girl,” she recalled. “ She’s one year younger than me. I had no chance playing against her. I remember I lose to her 6 1, 6 Love or something, but it was no chance. But then I talk to her. I said, Dinara, do you remember something? She says, Yeah, I remember you coming with rock shirt, because I was big fan of the rock band and with big bottle of Coke to the match. She was very good then, and then her brother was huge. I was coming to Marat, ‘Hey, I know your sister Dinara. Can you give me autograph?’ It was funny. It’s always been rivalry even she was good, but then I started to play better.”
That’s’ what the Russian had to do in the third set against Stosur, who was playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, but who sports a hard first serve, huge forehand and competent net game.
But Kuznetsova, who reached the ’06 final before falling to Justine Henin, used her big match experience and rediscovered love of the battle to mentally out-tough her foe.
The two traded multiple breaks of serve in the first set, but Kuznetsova finally held to 5-3 and after the 25-year-old Aussie also held, Kuznetsova fought off a break point with a powerful forehand crosscourt and then won the set with another forehand winner.
After playing for more than two and half hours to overcome 10-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams on Wednesday, Kuznetsova wanted to close out Stosur in straight sets, but it was not to be.
Slightly bothered by a sore right ankle and blisters, Kuznetsova backed off the ball a bit while Stosur began to charge.
The Russian got off to 4-2 lead in the second set , but Stosur broke her back to 4-4 when she forced a forehand error out of her foe. While the Queenslander didn’t grow up on clay, she was moving well, hurting the Russian with her forehand and staying solid from her weaker backhand side.
After nailing a forehand down the line, Kuznetsova got out to a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, but then the Aussie turned the match around, winning five consecutive points, three with winners, including a sharp inside out forehand to take the set.
However, the Russian, who has now gained her fourth Grand Slam final, would not be deterred. Serving at 2-2, she fought off a break point when Stosur tried to crush a backhand return crosscourt that just fell long.
Kuznetsova then held and broke the Australian in the next game when Stosur erred on a forehand. From there, Kuznetsova cleaned up her game and buried any mid court ball that was thrown her way.
After belting a forehand winner, she won the match when Stosur went wide with her forehand.
Kuznetsova finished the match with 34 winners to 22 winners, while Stosur registered 31 winners and 32 unforced errors.
“The most difficult is after having chances, not winning them in the second set, putting everything in the third set,” she said. “I think I had chance and I didn’t finish it. The opponent is getting tougher and tougher, because you let them come back in the match and they start to believe in it and they start to play better. This is the hardest thing emotionally. But then, I really enjoy playing this match. Even the crowd was not from my side. They were supporting I think Sam more. I don’t know why. It was tough. I enjoy having long rallies, putting lots of spin, playing different ball. I really love doing this, and this is a pleasure which is my job and also it’s my passion.On Saturday, Kuznetsova will play Safina for the third time during the clay court season. Kuznetsova beat Safina in her only defeat of the clay season in the Stuttgart final, while Safina turned the tables on her in the Rome final. Safin also took her down in the ’08 Roland Garros semis.
The contest will be match up between friends, who are planning to be all business, but will certainly be a little stressed, emotional and competitive as hell.
“Definitely going to be stress, definitely going to be emotion, definitely going to be business’ she said. “ Everything. I will still try to put it away and just go out. Why should I change? Every match should be the same, even first round or last round. This last match has got to be the same. Going to be my passion, anyway. I’m going to play. I’m not going to change for the final. Well, I will try not to change.”
No. 1 Safina has much to prove in this final. Although she’s only lost one match since she became No.1, she knows as well as anyone that she had to back up her ranking with a Slam. With Serena Williams’ quarterfinal loss, Safina is guaranteed to hold on to the top spot until the week of July 20, well after Wimbledon,. Imagine if she doesn’t win either title.
“Since I became No. 1, I think I’m playing the finals, so I’m kind of trying to show [I deserve it]. Well, it’s, how you say, third is the victory? I hope this time I will do it.”