Veteran Kuznetsova Threatens the Young Guns at the WTA Finals

There is nothing in sport like getting on a roll, generating so much momentum that you feel almost unbeatable and that every shot or pass feels easier than it ever has before (and perhaps ever will again). It is a fleetingly rare experience for most sportsmen and women, and when they are on a roll they simply have to make the most of it while they can. And no-one in all of sports is on a roll right now like Svetlana Kuznetsova. It may even take her all the way in the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Kuznetsova’s mighty roll began last week when she won the Kremlin Cup in her native Russia to seize the last place in the eight-woman field in Singapore from Britain’s Johanna Konta. Kuznetsova had to win the Kremlin Cup to make the WTA Finals and she duly did so, beating Daria Gavrilova, the Russian-born Australian, in straight sets to clinch her appearance alongside the rest of the world’s top nine. (Serena Williams had already pulled out of the tournament due to injury, freeing up the spot that Kuznetsova gleefully grabbed.)

So late was Kuznetsova’s qualification for Singapore that when the WTA Finals draw was originally made last weekend the final contestant was simply listed as “A N Other”, but since arriving in Singapore from Russia Kuznetsova has played as if there is no other player who can touch her. She has already beaten Agnieszka Radwańska, the defending champion, and Karolina Pliskova, the woman who blew Serena Williams away in the US Open semi-final, in successive matches to reach the last four of the tournament. She will play Garbiñe Muguruza in her third and last round-robin match to determine whether she wins her group or finishes second. Whatever happens, though, she has probably already exceeded her wildest expectations for the end of this season.

In fact, Kuznetsova hasn’t just been on a roll; she has rolled back the years, to when she was a double Grand Slam winner. Her appearance at this year’s WTA finals is her first since 2009, when she won the French Open against Dinara Safina in straight sets. That triumph on the French clay came five years after she had won on the hard courts of the US Open against Elena Dementieva, and the fact that her two Major victories have come on such completely contrasting surfaces is a testament to her all-round game.

It could even be argued that Kuznetsova has under-achieved somewhat since her second Grand Slam triumph, but she has also suffered horribly from injuries in that time.  It is only this year that she has been sufficiently free from injury to complete her end-of-season race to Singapore, returning to the world’s top 10 for the first time since 2009.

Now it seems that anything is possible. The way that Kuznetsova is playing at the moment is a testament to something that is often forgotten in professional sport – the importance of just going for it. Kuznetsova knew that she had to win in Russia last week to make the WTA Finals, and that is what she did. And she has continued in that manner in Singapore, to the extent that she is now a definite semi-finalist and a realistic contender for the title.

It must also be remembered that Kuznetsova, at 31, is by far the oldest competitor in Singapore this week. The next oldest player, the World No.1 Angelique Kerber, may be 28, but in tennis years she is much younger than that, having only made her Major-winning breakthrough this year. By contrast, Kuznetsova has more than a decade of experience at the top end of the women’s game.

It has been fascinating to watch Kuznetsova this week as she has dispatched much younger opponents. Indeed, it has almost been a clash of tennis eras as she has vanquished Radwańska and Pliskova. Kuznetsova’s own contemporaries are also from the older generation of players, as exemplified by Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. However, Williams has finally been laid low by injury while Sharapova faces a battle just to climb the rankings when she returns from her drugs ban in 2017. For now, Kuznetsova is the torch-bearer for the older women on tour.

It has also been instructive to see other players genuinely enjoying Kuznetsova’s late-season flurry. Even Konta, who Kuznetsova beat to the last place in Singapore, paid tribute to “Sveta”, as she is known, saying that it took a great player to win a tournament when the pressure was on them. Certainly, Kuznetsova has always been one of the most popular women on tour, with her ebullient, even flamboyant personality off court at odds with what has sometimes been a dour power-game on court.

The whole world had a glimpse into her unpredictable personality earlier this week when she took to trimming her own hair on court during the match against Radwańska. When asked afterwards why she had done it, she simply said that it had been “bugging” her, but it was certainly a successful ploy. Indeed, she has almost been Samson in reverse, as her unscheduled trip to the hairdressers has coincided with her best form of the season.

Of course, when an athlete, or a team of athletes, gets on a roll, they can prove absolutely unstoppable, as they generate their own energy and momentum, which ultimately sweeps away all before them. Often, this coincides with the simple necessity of winning games, rather than contemplating anything longer-term. It is as if they are compelled to adopt the old John Lennon dictum, “Be here now”, rather than worrying about some nebulous future.  In this way, they are perhaps freed up mentally and physically to do their best.

Perhaps the most famous example of this in sport was the victory of the Danish football team at the European Championships in 1992. As has often been recounted since, the Danes were literally already on the beach, as their players had begun their summer holidays after finishing second in qualifying to what was then an exceptional Yugoslavia side, based on the Redstar Belgrade team that had won the European Cup the year before. Of course, because of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the country’s eventual collapse into civil war, the Yugoslav national team were unable to take their place in that summer’s tournament in Sweden. Replacing the Yugoslavs with minimal preparation – indeed, with virtually no real preparation at all – the Danes duly swept all before them on their way to what remains undoubtedly the greatest sporting achievement of any Scandinavian nation, not just Denmark alone.

Kuznetsova is doing something similar now, first winning her place at the WTA Finals at the very last minute and then carrying on that winning form in the Finals themselves. Even if she does not go on to win the tournament (Kerber, who has also already won through to the semi-finals from the other group, remains the favourite to take the crown and cap off her own extraordinary 2016), she has had her most successful season in years. If she can stay fit and similarly focused in 2017 she can join those otherenduring veterans of the women’s game, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, in collectively trying to fend off the rise of the young guns who have dominated so much of women’s tennis this year.

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