“Supremely talented, but…” How many times have those words been used to describe Svetlana Kuznetsova? The 27-year-old Russian, one of the forgotten Grand Slam champions of the past, had been all but written into retirement, her best days surely behind her.
But Kuznetsova, one of the most entertaining characters on the WTA, has always been fond of flying under the radar, and has made her way quickly and quietly through the draw over the past week.
Although a fourth round encounter against Caroline Wozniacki would be tricky, no doubt, Kuznetsova’s own worst enemy tends to be herself, her natural ability stifled by concentration wobbles and confidence crises.
But the world No.75 survived all her own demons in the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, beating Wozniacki 6-2 2-6 7-5 in an entertaining cluster of a match, and advancing to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since Roland Garros 2011, her first in Melbourne since 2009.
As her form had suggested, Kuznetsova started the match with perfect tactics, cutting Wozniacki off at the net, and firing 18 winners to avoid the Dane’s preferred tortured baseline tussles.
An early break of serve was all she needed to package up the momentum, and she broke again to take the set, 6-2 after 40 minutes.
But then she lost her way. As Wozniacki’s level improved, going for more pop on her serve and more rip on her groundstrokes, Kuznetsova’s form went wayward. The score almost perfectly reversed, Wozniacki levelled the match after a further 33 minutes, producing just three unforced errors to the Russian’s 13.
Going into the third set, with ice towels called into commission, predicting whose corner the momentum would fall in seemed unfathomable. With Wozniacki, the 10th seed, trying to further up the ante, Kuznetsova took a medical timeout at 2-3 on serve for some attention to her toes.
Wozniacki pounced. She fashioned two break points, but Kuznetsova saved herself. Again, the Russian serving at 3-4, Wozniacki had an opportunity, a 27-shot rally ending in her favour. But the two-time Grand Slam champion found a backhand volley and a backhand winner. She held.
With the set passing the 60-minute mark, Kuznetsova strung together another series of winners to hold again for 5-5 in a fashion so gritty it was startling. Wozniacki had no more answers. The Russian broke, and then served it out; a backhand winner, her 52nd winner of the match, to finish it.
“I really appreciate my effort,” she said jubilantly with a smile.
“I’m really happy with the result but disappointed with the second set because I think I got a bit stuck in there,” she added.
The winners were impressive, even if the unforced errors (41) were high. But it was her execution at the net, winning 23 out of 25 approaches, which flummoxed Wozniacki so completely.
It is for such reasons that Kuznetsova will be an entertaining addition to the quarterfinals, where she will likely face top seed Victoria Azarenka. Long may her run continue.