Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Eternal Question
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The Eternal Question 10/01/2008 - 5:21 PM

SkThere’s death. There are taxes. There’s the sun rising in the east. And there’s this question, pondered every three or four months by tennis fans all over the world: What’s the deal with Svetlana Kuznetsova?

After the last two weekends, we’re still waiting for a satisfactory answer. Kuznetsova reached the final in Tokyo two weeks ago and did the same in Beijing on Sunday. Both times she was beaten by nearly identical, and identically depressing, scores: 6-1, 6-3 by Dinara Safina at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and 6-3, 6-2 by Jelena Jankovic at the China Open. Both times Kuznetsova betrayed little emotion and afterward offered a less-than-eye-opening explanation, beyond the fact that her opponent had played better than her.

What makes Kuznetsova so questionable is not the fact that she’s an underachiever. It’s true that she doesn’t live up to her potential, but she does it in a very specific way: She can’t win finals. Her loss to Jankovic in Beijing was her 10th loss in her last 11 title rounds. Kuznetsova is the athletic match of any woman save the Williams sisters. She's always a threat and always in the Top 10. She has helped the Russians to multiple Fed Cup wins. She can beat anyone, and often does—she was 4-2 against Jankovic coming into Sunday and had defeated her in the quarterfinals in Tokyo the week before. But once she faced her in a final, Kuznetsova didn’t stand a chance. You could see it right from the opening games.

Why, anyone with a knowledge of these two women’s styles might ask, did Kuznetsova, the bigger hitter, begin 5 feet behind the baseline while Jankovic, the most defensive-minded of the top players, stood on top of hers? From there Jankovic played with more purpose than she usually does. She dictated the rallies by going behind Kuznetsova, by redirecting the ball whenever she wanted, and by finishing points with down the line winners. Jankovic has had her own struggles in finals, but on this day she made a point of playing a more aggressive game without decreasing her usual margin for error. The pressure of the moment had sharpened both her tactics—she wanted to get Kuznetsova on the run as soon as possible and force her to play defense—and her execution.

Contrast this with the Russian, who continued to camp out well behind the baseline. From that position, she couldn’t have played with a purpose or a plan even if she had wanted to. Everything off her racquet was reactive. Even the winners she did hit, like a scorching pass at 3-2 in the first set, seemed random and unlikely to be repeated. By going up the line so often, Jankovic exposed Kuznetsova’s very weak defensive backhand, where she’s forced to take one hand off the racquet and slice the ball back. She dumped at least half a dozen into the net. This isn't just a shot she doesn’t like to hit in a match, it also seems to be one she doesn’t like to practice. Whereas Jankovic raised her game for the occasion, Kuznetsova looked defeated after five games, as if she had resigned herself to another loss in a final.

From a playing perspective, two flaws always stand out for me in Kuznetsova’s game. The first is the heavily Western forehand grip and fast, go-for-broke swing she uses on her forehand. The combination allows her to put high balls away for impressive winners from just about anywhere. The downside is that, like James Blake, it doesn’t allow her to hit her forehand as a consistent rally ball—her timing and footwork need to be virtually perfect all the time. And Kuznetsova lacks the discipline to be perfect very often, especially on key points, where she has a disconcerting habit of not being in the right position when she makes contact. Up a break point at 3-2 in the first set, she stood flat-footed and sailed a routine forehand long. She lost that game and was broken in the next one.

Positioning as a whole is another of Kuznetsova’s eternal issues. You might say she’s cursed—or spoiled, depending on how you look at it—by her athleticism, which allows her to muscle shots while she’s falling backward or sideways, and hit winners from places other players can’t. The problem is that Kuznetsova is always falling backwards or sideways when she makes contact, and against Jankovic she rarely showed the patience needed to work a point until she was inside the baseline before she pulled the trigger. While Jankovic took her shots on the rise and from the middle of the court, Kuznetsova hit hers on the run and from the sidelines. She never made a concerted effort to break that pattern.

What is it about finals that Kuznetsova can’t deal with? In her press conferences, she doesn’t seem to have much idea of what she did wrong other than miss her shots and lose to the better player that day. Maybe at a certain point in a final, when things don’t start well, Kuznetsova mentally caves because she knows she had a successful week anyway. Or maybe the thought of losing another final wears on her to the point where stops trying to battle it. On Sunday she showed no fire, frustration, anger, or emotion of any kind. By the last game, she had checked out. Kuznetsova began it with three unforced errors, including a crazy, pointless forehand wide and an embarrassing forehand volley to the same spot. Jankovic put her out of her misery on the fourth point with a passing-shot winner.

Of the Russian women who broke through four years ago, Maria Sharapova, half-American anyway, has gone on to win more majors; Anastasia Myskina is out of the game; Elena Dementieva has had her ups and downs, but will always be hampered by nerves on her serve. Kuznetsova is somewhere in the middle of them, not a ringing success but not a disaster either. Perhaps her U.S. Open win in 2004 led us to believe she was tougher mentally than she really was, and we've never adjusted our expectations downward. Still, she's exasperating. Her off-court persona is fun-loving and jocky. She can hold her own on a soccer pitch with the men, and she loves her hip-hop and night life. This person is pretty much the opposite of the floundering, impassive character who shows up during final-round matches.

The only Russian woman to reach No. 1 is Sharapova, but like I said she’s at least half-American, especially in the way she takes success as her right, as the product of her will. In fact, the only year-end WTA No. 1s from the Eastern bloc, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, are American citizens (Navratilova's reign at the top began one year after she became a U.S. citizen; on the men's side, Czechoslovakia's Ivan Lendl reached No. 1 for the first time less than two years after he moved to the States). This season Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, both of whom trained in the West, have a chance to add their names to that list. Early this year, Ivanovic seemed to be coming around to the idea that she was a No. 1, that success was her right; now it’s Jankovic and even Safina who appear to be thinking the same thing for themselves. All three have, at different times in 2008, played with a heightened sense of purpose—Beijing was as focused as I’ve seen Jankovic in a final. They’ve left Kuznetsova, who is more powerful and athletic than any of them, 4 feet behind the baseline and four spots below them in the rankings. After watching her scramble pointlessly for two sets on Sunday, I can only conclude that she's content in both of those places.


Posted by Heidi 10/01/2008 at 05:29 PM

Steve, I haven't even made it through the entire post yet, but had to say I got a great laugh from the opening.

Posted by Fed Fan 10/01/2008 at 05:33 PM


I forgot to write to you to ask you what you did when Roger won the open a few weeks back? Ashamed at what you had been writing for months? Will you once again start picking him to not reach the semi's of slams next year. I definitely think you may be one of the top monkeys he proved wrong. Your predictions before every major always gets me steamed, but this last story ended perfectly.

For future reference try not to count Fed out to early and risk looking like a total idiot once again. And for all the nonsense you put out against him over the last few months , go kick urself in the rear end.


Posted by jewell 10/01/2008 at 05:44 PM

Interesting post, Steve. Maybe she just wants it too much?

Posted by ND 10/01/2008 at 05:50 PM

Another corker Steve. Thanks. I like the Kuzzy-Blake analogy.

Posted by avid sports fan (still smiling and believing in miracles) 10/01/2008 at 05:54 PM

Steve - Thanks for this piece. I just put out my mind on the other thread possibly when you were putting this up. I just don't seem to have any logical explanation any more *sigh*

*cross-posted from your call 10.1*
not a good day for me on the WTA today. Serena and Kuzzy in the same quarter lose their first matches. As for Serena while the loss hurts, it's Kuzzy's loss that pains me the most. when will she be able to pull off a tournament be it tier I or tier II or GS or whatever win again *sigh* But I still continue to be patient and believe :)

Posted by afwu1216 10/01/2008 at 05:54 PM

GOD! Sveta's lack of consistency drives me bonkers!! When she is playing a match and hits a ball 10 feet wide from the middle of the court, I want to cry. Even I would have made that shot back into a good position. She is certainly a waste of tennis talent and she should retire.

Posted by aussiemarg{true lover of all things spanish also learing the lingo} 10/01/2008 at 05:55 PM

steve great post and observations of kuzzy,after watching last final between her and jj,jj was on fire,in that match,to me kuzzy looked lost,no idea,started off well,then,oh my,she is a great athlete,in my mind,she easily moves,also one of the hardest hitters,the power she gets off the ball is great,also us open champion,who woould believe that now,its sad to say,i know she is moving from spain,back to russia,getting new coach,maybe this might help,after russia winnign fed cup,thought it might be the confidence,she needed,to get back,well at the moment,that is not the case,after going out in first round,i think visiting a sport physico,wouldnt go astray here,i want to see kuzzy back,as once a force on the wta tour,considering she was no 2 last year,her play and rankings are not going in the right direction,for a player of her ability.

Posted by afwu1216 10/01/2008 at 05:57 PM

What happened to my post?

Posted by wow 10/01/2008 at 05:59 PM

Who the heck is Svetlana Kuznetsova???

I only care abour Federer and Rafa.

Posted by ND 10/01/2008 at 06:03 PM

"wow", if it stirs your interest, Federer once watched Kuznetsova and said that he really liked her game. Fed's analysis of players is usually spot on (Djokovic was one error). Does this makes her interesting from your perspective? :)

Posted by Master Ace 10/01/2008 at 06:07 PM

Also, she got smoked in the French Open semifinals by Dinara after breezing through a not so difficult draw. Last time Sveta won a title by completing a match was over 2 yrs ago in Beijing when she defeated Amelie Mauresmo, who won AO and W. She did win a title at New Haven in 2007 but Agnes Szavay, who won 8 straight matches starting with qualifying, retired with a back injury after winning the first set. Maybe a move back to Moscow will help Sveta perspective on her game in 2009.

Posted by skip1515 10/01/2008 at 06:12 PM

Steve wrote:

"What’s the deal with Svetlana Kuznetsova?"

1. She will never be willowy like Sharapova, and doesn't need to be, but she also doesn't need the extra lb's she carrying around. No thin-ism being expressed here, just basic sports physiology. Is it accidental that Safina's successes have come after her losing excess weight and getting into shape? I think not.
2. Speaking of Safina, doesn't Kuznetsova's game remind you of Safina, before the latter remade herself? Short of the difference in their movement talent (Kuznetsova has it all over Safina in that department), they are both hitters of the big ball, certainly not Jankovic-like. But Safina has learned that you can't win if you don't keep the ball in play, regardless of how ambitious your intentions or how much you may want the win (in theory). To her huge credit, Safina has admitted in her post match interviews that she a) didn't keep the ball in play when she should have, and/or b) had a bad attitude that she can't afford if she wants to win. Are you listening, Svetlana? (Jeez, this begins to sound like a paen to Marat's little sister.)

At some point Kuznetsova has to decide what she wants more: the relatively relaxed life of players who occasionally play well enough to trouble the big dogs, or important W's on her resumé. I suggest that until she decides she wants the latter, she'll always be an enigma, because no one ever admits publically to not being dedicated.

Posted by skip1515 10/01/2008 at 06:23 PM

P.S. Fed Fan, what is the point of being so rude? Do you really think it makes you seem more intelligent? Incisive? Handsome? Pretty? Witty? Erudite?

Sorry, the answer is None Of The Above.

Keeping the discussion a) rooted in the topic of the post, and b) focused on the content of various opinions and not personal insults, are both greatly appreciated by anyone whose opinion you want to influence, I assure you.

Posted by jewell 10/01/2008 at 06:25 PM

ND, what did Fed say about Djokovic? I'd love to know!

Posted by gliciousness 10/01/2008 at 06:26 PM

i feel sorry for Kuznetsova...when my fav wta players are out of the mix in a go for her...just for pity...she is supposed to be so likeable on tour least i think she has fun.

Posted by ND 10/01/2008 at 06:29 PM

Jewell, I think a couple of years before Djokovic made all the SFs, someone asked Fed what he thought while watching Djokovic. Fed was like yeah, he tries to be consistent from the baseline...nothing special. In the last couple of years, Djokovic has become much more explosive, and Fed didn't expect this.

I think his USO interviews repeat some of this material, i.e., he talks about how he thought Rafa and Muzzah were special from day one. But not Djokovic.

Posted by tommy 10/01/2008 at 06:29 PM

Kuznetsova won the USO in 2004 in a 2 set final. Beat Sharapova in a 2 set Miami 2006 final.
This inability to play well in a final happened recently, the last 2 years.
In Sydney she played well, and just missed. I saw the Dubai final and IW. Not as good as Sydney, but better than the last 2 weeks, where Kuznetsova was noncompetitive in the finals.
Lets see what Morozova can do with her. Navratilova has often said that Kuznetsova is a great talent, but you can't tell by recent finals.

Posted by jewell 10/01/2008 at 06:34 PM

Thanks, ND. I'm not sure about his opinion on Murray, though - didn't he say something about Murray not going to be able to win all his matches from the baseline, playing defensively, after Murray won one of their matches?

I can't remember the details though. And of course that wouldn't stop him saying that Murray was special anyway.

Posted by C Note 10/01/2008 at 06:34 PM

Wow. Great post, Steve! I never realized the Masha, Martina, and Monica connection.

Posted by ND 10/01/2008 at 06:43 PM

Jewell, The way I read his Muzzah criticism, is that he was a little disappointed that Muzzah hadn't evolved as much as he expected. Perhaps, also a little pissy after his loss. But, before and after that he's always mentioned him as an upcoming talent.

Posted by jewell 10/01/2008 at 06:57 PM

I'm probably filtering it through the UK press, ND, so my view is maybe skewed. I like the magnanimity you give to Roger, though. :)

Posted by Biljana 10/01/2008 at 08:03 PM

ND, I remember Federer's strong opinions about Djokovic which were very suspicious because of their intensity. I always had a feeling he felt threat coming from Djokovic and that was the reason he acted indifferent, almost in denial. And the intensity is still present
(aside all back court drama) in between two of them. Exciting!
But lets move to another topic. This is another great article Steve.
I must say I like SK more than JJ but how about saying some praise to
Jelena. Congrats!

Posted by crazyone 10/01/2008 at 08:42 PM

Biljana, if what you're saying is correct, you're just reinforcing what ND says, that Roger has a good eye for talent.

All this talk of Kuznetsova's dedication or lack thereof is reminding me of David Nalbandian (they also physically resemble each other, down to the nose, blond ponytail and headband positioning!)

Posted by Erin 10/01/2008 at 08:45 PM

I loved this article, and totally agreed with many of the points about Svetlana's problems, but please, Maria is not half American,,, until the day she takes on US citizenship, which may be never, she's fully RUSSIAN, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nobody ever said Tommy Haas was half American and he's lived here forever, ditto Tatiana Golovin. I don't know why fans and writers keep having this obsessive need to make Maria Sharapova an American, she's not.... nobody does this with other foreign players that have lived and trained here just as long. Maybe it's a testament to how good Maria is that Americans want so badly to claim her!

Posted by ncot 10/01/2008 at 08:47 PM


AMEN to that. fedfanboy, that's not classy at all. emulate your god, rogi, ok? ;)

Posted by Erin 10/01/2008 at 08:49 PM

Posted by Biljana 10/01/2008 @ 8:03 PM

ND, I remember Federer's strong opinions about Djokovic which were very suspicious because of their intensity. I always had a feeling he felt threat coming from Djokovic and that was the reason he acted indifferent, almost in denial. And the intensity is still present
(aside all back court drama) in between two of them. Exciting!
But lets move to another topic. This is another great article Steve.
I must say I like SK more than JJ but how about saying some praise to
Jelena. Congrats!"

Roger is known to be very blunt when assessing other players. He said he wasn't that impressed with Djokovic earlier on, most likely because he just wasn't that impressed with him. The reality is he probably didn't have a reason to be that impressed with him at that time, djokovic has come a long way, but as we can see, still has a long way to go. I don't think for a minute that a couple of years ago Roger denied being impressed with a young player or intentionally ignored a young player's talent due to any threat he felt, a couple of years ago Roger had no reason to be threatened by anybody at all, he was pretty much dominating everybody that came on the court with him.

Posted by 10-S-Gal 10/01/2008 at 09:15 PM

In recent interviews, KS had stated that she could not handle the pressure and expectations after winning the US Open. Wonder if that may still be part of her problem with winning and the burdens it puts on her psyche.

Also, am I the only one who thinks that Kutsi and Andreev have got to be related?

Posted by 10-S-Gal 10/01/2008 at 09:20 PM

Oops, that was suppose to read SK.

Posted by Babalu 10/01/2008 at 09:40 PM

Here is what Roger says about Murray

Federer slams Murray's tactics after Dubai defeat

Roger Federer has criticised Andy Murray's tactics during the Scot's victory over the world No1 in Dubai yesterday, and questioned whether Murray is progressing as a player.

Murray knocked Federer out of the Dubai Championships in yesterday's opening round, but Federer today said he was unimpressed by Murray's lack of attacking intent, and does not believe that the British No1 has developed since they first crossed paths in the final of the 2005 Thailand Open.

"I don't think he has changed his game a whole lot since the first time I played him and I really thought he would have done," said Federer. "He is going to have to grind it very hard in the next few years if he is going to play this way. He stands way behind the court. You have to do a lot of running and he tends to wait for the mistakes of his opponent.

"I gave him the mistakes but overall, in a 15-year career, you want to look to win a point more often, rather than wait for the other guy to miss. Who knows, he might surprise us all."

Yesterday's victory was 20-year-old Murray's second consecutive win over Federer after beating the Swiss in Cincinnati in 2006. Murray won 48 of 53 points on his first serve and Federer, who is six years Murray's senior, failed to push him to break point in any game. Murray faces Spain's Fernando Verdasco in the next round.

Posted by Biljana 10/01/2008 at 10:17 PM

I agree with both crazyone and Erin,
Rivalry in between Federer and Djokovic appeals to me because they
are both aware of each other talents but have hard time accepting it.
As I already said : Excitng!

Posted by Lily 10/01/2008 at 10:52 PM

No offence to Sveltana but she could defentely lose the extra weight she's been carrying around. I'm not suggesting she become super thin or she has to look like Dementieva, but the excess weight doesn't help her at all. Just my opinion.

Posted by Jody 10/01/2008 at 10:54 PM

Poor girl, she's gotten into a dreadful habit of losing finals. Oddly that seems okay with her, but in reality it's a bit sad and worrisome. She obviously has the talent and ability, she just needs to show it in the finals. I hope she starts getting some titles because Jelena and Dinara seem to be taking turns winning them.

Posted by Nanna 10/01/2008 at 11:29 PM

Kuznetsova doing a Davydenko in the finals perhaps?

Posted by jewell 10/02/2008 at 02:56 AM

Thanks, Babalu.

Posted by unknown 10/02/2008 at 10:29 AM

"Also, am I the only one who thinks that Kutsi and Andreev have got to be related?"

I think she looks more like Nalbandian. They've got the same nose and full lips.

Posted by SwissMaestro 10/02/2008 at 10:53 AM

Kuznetsova- A physical portent indeed but a mental -careless(?)- midget. She could learn from her fellow countrywoman Sharapova. Learn to play the percentages to not make careless mistakes, learn how to right the ship when is needed the most -even when she's playing bad- and to push herlself to find a way to stay in the match -specially a final- despite being outplayed, in other words: she doesn't lack power, talent or athleticism; she lacks competitive intelligence.

Posted by J-Block 10/02/2008 at 11:32 AM

Actually Erin, lots of people consider Tursunov to be basically an American. I'd expect Nishikori to get similar treatment.
And I think wow was probably being sarcastic, commenting on the predominance of articles about Federer and Nadal at this site. As much as I like tw, I muct admit I'd love to hear something about juniors, or doubles, or players ranked outside the top 15 from time to time; it seems like these subjects get little play here. Just one man's opinion.

Posted by Mark 10/02/2008 at 02:35 PM

Kuzy needs to make up her mind if she wants to be an on-going champion or simply a yearly top-ten player. In her defense, she has reached a couple other grand slam finals in addition to her inaugural slam victory at the US Open in 2004.

However, she may be content making a living as a tennis player, traveling around the world, making numerous finals every year, and enjoying all the money she's making.

I'm not sure she possesses the "killer-instinct" like other grand slam champions...........Williams sisters, Henin, Sharapova. It's hard to tell if she really wants it bad. I think she is definitely a successful tennis champion, but not sure her mentality will allow her to achieve multiple grand-slam success. I might put Kuzy and Mauresmo in the same group, along with Kim Clijsters.

Posted by Mark 10/02/2008 at 02:38 PM

In regards to Kuzy's physical shape. She should take some notes from Davenport.

Posted by Inigo Knightley 10/02/2008 at 07:50 PM

Is it just me who thinks that despite the little bit of "extra weight" and the slightly "jocky" persona, Svetlana is still a fox?

I'd bring her home to meet my mother any day of the week!

Posted by orlando 10/03/2008 at 11:13 AM

Svetlana is a big hitter .I watched her several times here in Toronto but she is quite slow compared to others.I think she needs to concentrate training on speed like Ms.Graf.Svetlana is my favorite Russian player..Hope to see her always playing in the tournaments.

Posted by Underspin 10/03/2008 at 12:04 PM

You seem to totally forget about upcoming Safina who has recently found a way to win, maybe she is the future of the Russian mindset.

Posted by AF 10/04/2008 at 06:55 PM

Of course Sharapova is American and I just do not understand why she does not change her passport. She lives in US since she was seven, she is even losing her Russian. When she gives interview in Russian she is sometimes searching for words. The way she thinks, talks, her mentality is American, look at what she writes on her web-site, she is typical american girl, very different from Safina or Dementieva or Zvonareva. Zvonareva, when asked what was her favorite book said "war and peace" of Tolstoy and her favorite personality is Putin. Sharapova would never said anything like that, she is all clothes, money, cars, Florida, beach, catwalks, selebrity friends, commercials, parties..

Posted by berkee 10/04/2008 at 10:11 PM

Sveta needs to see a sports psychologist!! Also she should follow her mentor Navratilova and get in better physical shape. If she doesn't do these things, she will be a one slam wonder like Novotna or Myskina.

Posted by love40 10/05/2008 at 01:00 PM

Calling Dr. Allen Fox!!! Yes, I agree, Sveta needs to make an Agassi-like committment to physical and mental training. She could wake up at 4:45 am, chug a few raw eggs like Rocky and hit the streets in her "big girl" sweat suit. I think a lean-mean, mentally focused Svetlana would be seriously hard to beat. The girl can Hit!

Posted by unique13 10/06/2008 at 07:27 AM

what the hall does it matter eastern--western fact with the No1 year ending????? Sarapova is Russian regardles the fact you say its hlaf US????
Just dont see the point, a reasonable one, in comparason east-west when talking about No1. And the fact that Navratilova,Lendl and Seles took US citizenship are more a matter of practical, and for us historocal reasons...Nothing to do with No1 ......

Posted by pilic 10/07/2008 at 09:57 AM

I would think it more than obvious that Roger Federer's far from enthusiastic comments about Djokovic spring from the fact that the Serb, unlike Murray and Nadal, has little in his behaviour and demeanour on, and even off, court that endears him to his fellow professionals or inspires their respect.

Posted by natalie 10/07/2008 at 11:55 AM

Thank you for the article.I sincerely believe that sletvana is an outstanding tennis player.The problem with her is this: she has a weight issue that needs to be addressed,immediately!Excessive weight affects your mobility,your psyche,and can distort your perception of self.Perhaps,with a significant weight loss,she will attain significant confidence.As an athlete,I know for sure, that the way you perceive yourself determines how well you compete.One cannot win major tittles with low self image.That is what you will project on to the tennis courts;as well as,to your opponents,your fans and tennis enthusiasts at large.

Posted by IVO 10/08/2008 at 12:35 PM


Posted by Xx 10/18/2008 at 11:35 AM

I think it's about time people stopped saying that Maria is american/half american and so on...She has said many times she is Russian and she isn't changing that.
Maria Sharapova is RUSSIAN !

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