Svetlana Kuznetsova stormed into the semi-finals of the Qatar Total Open yesterday, her 6-4, 6-4 win over the much younger Swiss Belinda Bencic signalling a revival of fortunes for the two-time Grand Slam-winning Russian veteran.
Even at the peak of her powers between 2004 and 2009 that saw her win the French and US Opens, Kuznetsova stayed under the radar as far as the media spotlight and commercial endorsements were concerned, thanks mainly to the sudden arrival on the scene of a young Siberian tigress who swept the sporting world off its feet by winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old.
No prizes for guessing, that was Maria Sharapova, whose rise was the stuff of legend.
Shipped off to Nick Bolletieri’s academy in Florida as an eight-year-old thanks to the 700 dollars her father was able to borrow from friends and family, Sharapova defeated Lindsay Davenport for the Wimbledon title in 2004 and went on have a lucrative career, bagging five Grand Slam titles, the last of which came at the Australian Open in 2008.
Sharapova announced her retirement at age 32 on Wednesday after following almost five years of struggle with fitness, a doping ban and poor form. But even during that period of turmoil, she didn’t lose her marketability, earning in excess of $25mn per year through high-profile endorsements.
Kuznetsova, 34, on the other hand, is seemingly ready for another tilt at a top-10 position, after a series of highs and lows over the past four years. She dropped to World No. 107 at the end of 2018 and further slipped to 198 last year after missing the Citi Open in Washington, courtesy of a delayed visa.
But a steady run since then has helped her crack the top-50 which she aims to improve further as the season progresses.
“Today I served better and of course outdoors suit my game more,” said Kuznetsova, a runner-up in Qatar in 2004 and 2007.
“I was more aggressive, which was the right tactic. It was not easy in the wind but I pushed myself to move my feet. That’s basically all you can do when it’s windy and, yeah, it worked very well.”
Kuznetsova and Bencic, 22, made plenty of errors, but the Russian finally secured the first break in the ninth game of the first set with a cracking backhand that just fell on the line.
It came after eight service holds though; Kuznetsova had failed to nail the fifth game despite holding break point four times. But in the 10th game she held serve to clinch the set.
Kuznetsova broke Bencic in the very first game of the next set and again in the fifth. But although Bencic broke back in the fifth, Kuznetsova avoided further strife to close out the match in the 10th, after the Swiss hit a forehand long.
“I have amazing memories of Qatar,” Kuznetsova said after bagging a spot in the last four after a gap of 13 years. “It was so long ago it was like another life, but it really happened to me, I didn’t watch it in the movies. And here I’m back again in the semis. I didn’t expect it. I’ve been working hard for this and it’s nice that the work pays off.”
Earlier, in a marathon match, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka had to battle strong winds and the unseeded Zheng Saisai of China to reach the semi-finals, her come-from-behind 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 victory taking two hours and 21 minutes.
“Honestly I don’t know, I was just trying to push myself to fight for each point. And she was playing really well, moving really good and it was so many balls coming back on my side and I was just trying to go for it, like go through everything, especially with the conditions here,” said Sabalenka, who lost to Simona Halep in the quarter-finals in Dubai last week.
“I’m just happy that I could handle this pressure and could find the way how to win this match in these conditions.
“Well, it means a lot. And my tennis is, I’m just trying to bring everything I have to every match and just hoping that the next day will be better than the day today.”
Sabalenka said she expected a tough encounter against Kuznetsova in the last four today.
“Yes, for sure it’s another great player and she’s playing really well right now. She’s moving well, like nice tactic on each game and for sure she’s bringing everything she has right now.
“And tomorrow for sure she will fight for like every point and it’s not going to be the easy one for me. I’ll just need to push myself again and like one more time try to be calm and respect her. But this time I’m expecting like a really great level from her and I’m looking forward for that semi-final.”
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