tampabay.com

Kuznetsova back in championship form

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published April 2, 2006


KEY BISCAYNE - Welcome back, Svetlana.

Back to the spotlight.

Back to the big leagues.

Back to the winner's circle.

After a lengthy title drought, during which she was beset with confidence issues, injuries and inconsistent results, former U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova won her first event in 18 months, beating Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3 in an all-Russian final Saturday at the Nasdaq-100 Open in front of an announced 12,555. The victory put a stamp on an impressive stretch of play here that saw Kuznetsova save match point against Martina Hingis and beat two top-five players, including No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinals. "I wasn't expecting this," the 12th-seeded Kuznetsova said moments after the match. "I enjoyed myself out there."

To say Kuznetsova, who earned $533,350 and will climb back into the top 10, was impressive Saturday is an understatement. After a sloppy start by both, she thoroughly outplayed the fourth-seeded Sharapova, taking full advantage of a big serve and overpowering forehand. Sharapova had won 11 straight matches entering the final and lost only two sets along the way. "It was very difficult to keep up with Svetlana," Sharapova said. "I think I just came up short on some of those long points. I just physically wasn't ready to run down a lot of balls. When I hit great shots, she picked up the ball on the rise pretty early and was able to hit a bigger shot."

When Kuznetsova claimed the 2004 U.S. Open at 19, many expected her to become a consistent force. She has been anything but. A week after claiming the Open, she won at a small event in Indonesia, but Kuznetsova had been to just one final since. In this event, though, she found her stroke, rediscovered her swagger and lost just one set. "I feel pretty confident," Kuznetsova said. "I think before I was trying to hit the ball too hard. Now I'm just playing like half my power and the ball seems to go pretty fast, so I'm pretty excited about that."

During Saturday's slugfest, which featured two of the sport's biggest hitters, Kuznetsova continually dictated play, moving her opponent from one end of the baseline to the other with an array of authoritative forehands and precise backhands. The players traded breaks of serve in the first set before Kuznetsova gained control with another break in the sixth game after a Sharapova forehand sailed wide. Sharapova's head sank, and the shot was but a sign of things to come.

On set point, she missed a backhand wide, one of her 16 first-set unforced errors.

"I was just trying to hang in there," Sharapova said.

But she couldn't.

Kuznetsova seemed to smell blood and the thrashing was on.

Sharapova, who at times was visibly frustrated (especially while a small plane carrying a banner circled the venue during the first set before leaving at the request of local authorities - "It only circled around about 50 times," she said, "pretty weird."), continued to miss shots and Kuznetsova kept hitting winners. During one exchange, Sharapova emphatically screamed "Ay yay yay!" while chasing the ball. She got to it and sneaked a weak backhand over the net, which Kuznetsova then crushed to take the point.

Asked about the exclamation "Ay-yay-yay," Sharapova said: "At that point in the match maybe if you laugh, something will happen." Kuznetsova ended the match seconds later with a 109 mph ace, then dropped to her knees as the crowd, which seemed to be solidly in her corner, gave a standing ovation. After shaking Sharapova's hand, Kuznetsova raised her index finger to the sky.

She isn't No. 1, but during two weeks in South Florida, nobody played better.

"I just wanted to be there and just give my best," Kuznetsova said. "And I wanted this trophy pretty badly."