WTA Finals 2016

Great survivor conjures a win

After trimming her own ponytail on court, veteran beats defending champion

In the year that Facebook was founded and Gmail was launched and Million Dollar Baby was released and Madison Keys was nine years old, a Russian won the US Open. She wore braces, cracked one-liners and swore that she lived for tennis. "It lives with me, it lives in me," said Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2004.

In 2016, it still does.

Last night the Russian cut her hair on court, wept, beat Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 and reminded us why we like her. We might swoon over divas and artists, big hitters and braggers, but there's always room for people like her. The 31-year-old survivor.

She's the one who wrestles with Time, who is always in the draw, who played Jennifer Capriati once and now chastises the kids, who fails and starts again, who is in fact the very fabric of tennis.

She's the one who once doesn't believe enough in herself and yet wins two slams and no one else in this Finals field has more. Who could sit over a bottle of wine and write you a raw, honest book on victory and loss and pain and promise.

Svetlana Kuznetsova slices a backhand against Agnieszka Radwanska during her 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 victory last night.
Svetlana Kuznetsova slices a backhand against Agnieszka Radwanska during her 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 victory last night. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

She's the one who plays for four hours, 44 minutes at the Australian Open in 2011, has six match points, has her heart broken but can still dredge up a smile and say: "At some stage I was like, what's the score? Who's serving? I was like, what's going on anyway here?"

This is who Kuznetsova is and there she was yesterday, exhausted (she arrived on Sunday afternoon from Moscow), wincing, trying. She's a Barcelona-loving, Vegemite-detesting, Federer-admiring athlete who enjoys wakeboarding and likes nothing better than playing Agnieszka Radwanska. They've met 17 times and Kuznetsova now leads 13-4.

Of course, when the Russian meets the Pole they can turn an afternoon tea into an epic. Their last match this year in Wuhan went 171 minutes and yesterday their encounter was just three minutes shorter. Please understand, Kuznetsova was jet-lagged.

Svetlana Kuznetsova slices a backhand against Agnieszka Radwanska during her 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 victory last night.
Radwanska (above) had played 67 matches this year and Kuznetsova 63 but neither would quit. 

The Pole, wielder of a wand and as slender as one, broke first to 3-1. Kuznetsova was certainly tired and so Radwanska welcomed her with drop shots. This is not the mercy business. In response, the Russian, whose forehand is her preferred weapon, hit two humming, dipping backhands to break the Pole twice to win the set 7-5.

Cynics might see tennis with its elegant dresses and absence of contact as a gentle sport but yesterday's encounter was proof of its ruggedness. Radwanska had played 67 matches this year and Kuznetsova 63 but neither would quit. They sighed, sweated, shrugged and returned to swatting balls. It is only fair that at match's end each one had run 3.3 kilometres. 

The second set disappeared in a 6-1 rush to Radwanska, whereupon Kuznetsova took a long bathroom break. Her frustration was clear but the tennis was at times fabulous, a sliding, squeaking concerto of spins, lobs, slices and volleys. Think of it as tennis with IQ.

On her return to court, the Russian was broken again to start the third set which resulted in the emergence of a startling piece of weaponry. Scissors. She reached back during the changeover and hacked away at her ponytail. Then like some reverse-Samson, shorn but stronger, she broke back to 2-2. The drama was only beginning.

When Radwanska broke again to 3-2, Kuznetsova sat in her chair and sobbed under a towel. Later she hit her thigh and then chucked her racket. She was trying but tired, offering effort yet emotional. Sport sometimes just asks too much.

Cynics might see tennis with its elegant dresses and absence of contact as a gentle sport but yesterday's encounter was proof of its ruggedness. Radwanska had played 67 matches this year and Kuznetsova 63 but neither would quit. They sighed, sweated, shrugged and returned to swatting balls. It is only fair that at match's end each one had run 3.3 km.

Kuznetsova broke to 4-4 with a backhand streaking down the line and Radwanska broke back to 5-4 with a carbon copy of that shot. Then they played a 26-shot rally just for fun.

Of course Kuznetsova kept running, for she has the words "pain doesn't kill me, I kill the pain" inked on her arm. As she explained later: "I think in life you can be much stronger than you think". Yesterday she most certainly was. She eventually wore down Radwanska, she soldiered, she survived. And then, exhausted, she signed autographs. They will be worth preserving.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'Great survivor conjures a win'. Print Edition | Subscribe