The womens event has been turned almost completely upside down, with 2012 champion and 2013 finalist Maria Sharapova becoming the favorite after the unexpected departures of the trip at the top among the seeds. Sharapova is seeded only seventh, but she has secured a career Grand Slam and her vast experience at the majors and enduring greatness make her the woman to beat as long as she can avoid an unfortunate turn of events. Sharapova has not dropped a set in three matches en route to the round of 16.
Given the number of big surprises thus far in the tournament, the match I most looked forward to as the first week moved toward a conclusion was the third round collision between a pair of Grand Slam tournament champions who were well aware when they took the court of the potential they had to rekindle some of their former glories. In the opening match on the Saturday schedule at Roland Garros, the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova took on Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. What appealed to me about this contest was the fact that both players have accomplished so much across their careers, and here they were in a third round duel with a good deal of luster surrounding it. These two former No. 2 ranked players in the world did not let us down; Kuznetsova narrowly held back Kvitova 6-7 (3), 6-1, 9-7 in a pendulum swinging battle that lasted three hours and 13 minutes.
There was Kuznetsova on one side of the net, and what a resume she has. The Russian will turn 29 at the end of June, and she might one day be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her credentials as a front line player are impressive to say the least. In 2004, she captured the United States Open title, coming from behind to oust Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals before accounting for her countrywoman Elena Dementieva in the final round. Nearly five years later, at the 2009 edition of Roland Garros, Kuznetsova collected a second major singles title with a string of sterling victories, overcoming Serena Williams 7-6 (2), 5-7, 7-5 in the quarterfinals, upending Sam Stosur in a three set semifinal, stopping the top seeded Dinara Safina in the final.
Kuznetsova was long near the very top of the womens game, and deservedly so. Between 2004 and 2009, she finished five of six years among the top ten in the world, concluding 2007 at No. 2 after reaching the final of the U.S. Open, finishing 2009 at No. 3. She has moved slightly past her prime since then, but the fact remains that the No. 27 seed Kuznetsova is still formidable; a year ago, she was a break up in the final set before losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.
Meanwhile, here was Kvitova on the opposite side of the net, ready to assert her authority. Kvitova was seeded fifth at Roland Garros this year. This often dazzling yet always enigmatic left-hander has finished the past three years entrenched in the top ten. In 2011, when she played the match of her career to stop Sharapova in a straight set Wimbledon final, Kvitova was ranked No. 2 in the world. That was lofty territory, and she had difficulty living up to the billing. By the end of 2012, she was ranked at No. 8 in the world, although she climbed back to No. 6 in 2013. In my judgment, Kvitova should be a perennial top 5 player with her dynamic, free flowing and explosive game. She has been her own worst enemy on many occasions, beating herself with bad shot selection and lack of discipline, getting in her own way with too much negativity and inconsistency.
In any case, Kvitova and Kuznetsovatwo highly accomplished women with three major singles crowns combinedclashed today for the right to move on to the round of 16 in Paris. The first set was hard fought and went into a tie-break. Kvitova rose to that challenge admirably, prevailing seven points to three with bold shotmaking and good execution. But Kvitova was deeply troubled in the second set by an upper leg/back problem. She consulted with the trainer, left the court a few times for treatment, and was never in that set. A composed Kuznetsova lost only one game in the second set, and on the two players travelled to a third and final set.
The most captivating tennis of the match was released in the latter stages. Kvitova had her difficulties reaching wide balls on both the forehand and backhand sides. But she raised the level of her game again swiftly, breaking in the opening game of the final set, moving ahead 2-0. Serving at 2-1, she held on with a patented play that all lefties love. Kvitova opened up the court with a sharply angled crosscourt backhand, and then drove a crosscourt forehand into the clear. Kvitova was up 3-1, and looking impressive. But Kuznetsova had a sound gameplan, and she was sticking to it diligently.
The Russian was playing first rate defense, getting balls back methodically with as little pace as possible, giving nothing away, forcing Kvitova to keep producing outstanding tennis. Kuznetsova wanted no part of a slugfest down the middle of the court; her goal was to keep extending the rallies, to make Kvitova cover a lot of court, and to induce errors with soft slices off both sides that pushed Kvitova into awkward positions short in the court. Kuznetsova held on for 2-3, broke back for 3-3 with a fine running forehand that coaxed an error from Kvitova, and held at 15 for 4-3. That three game surge put Kuznetsova within striking distance of victory.
With Kvitova serving in the eighth game of the last set, Kuznetsova reached double break point at 15-40. By converting on one of them, Kuznetsova would be serving for the match. But Kvitova was unswerving at that crucial moment. She made it to 30-40 with a body serve to the backhand that was unanswerable, reached deuce with a sparkling low forehand drop volley winner, and then saved a third break point. A resolute Kvitova held on for 4-4.
Kuznetsova trailed 0-40 at 4-4 but she rallied to deuce. A double fault from Kuznetsova gave Kvitova a fourth break point, but the lefty missed a backhand return off a heavy kicker. Yet Kvitova stayed assertive. She angled a backhand acutely crosscourt for a winner, pulling that shot off beautifully from near the center of the court. Break point down for the fifth time, Kuznetsova could not escape. She sent a slice backhand down the line wide, and Kvitova had taken a 5-4 lead. The No. 5 seed was serving for the match. She advanced to 15-0 with a superb inside out forehand approach setting up a backhand drop volley winner. Kvitova was right where she wanted to be, three points away from a gratifying victory over an old and respected rival.
But, inexplicably, Kvitova double faulted for 15-15. Kuznetsova moved to 15-30. On the run, Kvitova drove a forehand down the line with interest, but Kuznetsovas response was commendable. On the dead run, at full stretch, she directed a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. When Kvitova followed by missing off the backhand side, Kuznetsova had broken back for 5-5 with a gutsy stand. Kuznetsova promptly held on at 15 for 6-5, and now she sensed a big chance to close this account in her favor.
Kvitova was serving at 15-40 in the twelfth game, down double match point. Kvitova took control of the point off her crackling forehand, approaching the net forcefully. All Kuznetsova could do was shovel the passing shot back off the forehand. Kvitova was set up for a high forehand volley down the line, but she played it apprehensively. The volley seemed to heading long, but it somehow clipped the baseline. A winner it was, but Kvitova knew how fortunate she was that her volley somehow landed safely on the line. On the second match point against her, Kvitova swung her slice serve wide in the ad court to open up a large avenue for a forehand down the line winner. She soon held on for 6-6.
In the following game, Kuznetsova had two game points but Kvitova persisted. On her second break point, Kvitova got the break as Kuznetsova netted a routine forehand. Kvitova had moved to 7-6, and was serving for the match a second time. Once more, Kuznetsova was obstinate. She reached 0-40 with an intelligent mixture of shots, keeping the ball low and short to draw mistakes from Kvitova. Kvitova surged back to 30-40 but then pulled a two-hander wide crosscourt. Kuznetsovas poise under pressure was extraordinary, while Kvitova again did not press her advantage. It was 7-7.
Kuznetsova held on at 30 for 8-7, and now realized she could finally get the job done. Serving to stay in the match, Kvitova faltered off an inside out forehand on the first point. That was her 63rd unforced error of the contest, while Kuznetsova had made only 20. That disparity was striking. Kuznetsova took the next point for 0-30 before Kvitova double faulted for the eleventh time in the match. At 0-40, Kvitova drove an inside out forehand somewhat desperately, well out of court. Victory belonged to Kuznetsova, and deservedly so.
Kvitova competed honorably, despite whatever pain she was experiencing. Kuznetsova was first rate, strategically sound, displaying nearly impeccable court sense every step of the way. She is an extraordinary all court player who made defense the cornerstone of her game to beat Kvitova. The fact remains that she can just as easily win matches by stepping up the pace and controlling the tempo with her inside out forehand. I would not be surprised to see a revitalized Kuznetsova soon back inside the top 15 in the world. She is a remarkable match player who knows how to win big matches and wants to keep finding success. As for Kvitova, these next two to three years will be critical. The instability of her game can be worrisome, but I liked her stern fight against Kuznetsova; her attitude was largely positive. She will make her presence known at many more majors ahead, and just might win another Grand Slam event before she concludes her career.
In any event, it was a pleasure observing this suspenseful Roland Garros encounter. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova put on a very good show. The final set was highly compelling. The guess here is that we will see a lot more of these two champions in important settings over the next couple of years. I certainly hope that is the case.