Heart-pumping win for Kuznetsova

Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia celebrates after defeating Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic during their singles round robin match of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 26, 2016.
Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia celebrates after defeating Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic during their singles round robin match of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 26, 2016.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - If you're thinking about visiting the WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, kindly stop hemming and hawing. Just go. Please. Because you're almost guaranteed to see a minor classic in sweat and grit and gumption and tension. What else do you want from sport?

This week Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulkova played two hours 17 minutes; Svetlana Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Radwanska fought for two hours 48 minutes; and Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza battled for two hours 29 minutes.

Yesterday they went at it again, stroke for stroke, nerve for nerve. Under the air-conditioning, Pliskova from the Czech Republic and Kuznetsova from Russia turned on the competitive heat for two hours 17 minutes. They exchanged 15 service breaks, each served for the match, Pliskova saved three match points, and it ended fittingly with a victorious Kuznetsova on her knees. She had run out of running.

It was a scrappy match and yet a superb scrap. In the end, Kuznetsova won 96 points and Pliskova 94. The Russian won 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) and was asked on court, as boxers often are, where she got her second wind from. "My heart," she said. "I've not been at my best my past few years. Something changed this year and I'm just enjoying my game."

In pure statistical terms, Pliskova, the US Open finalist, is ranked four places above Kuznetsova, is seven years younger, 12 cm taller and on average serves considerably faster. Just the sort of stuff, it seems, to provoke the Russian into inspired action. She does defiance beautifully and consistently: No one on tour, after all, has won more three-set matches than her this year.

If this tournament was looking for a fan favourite it has found one in Kuznetsova. She was the last of the players to arrive in Singapore but is offering the greatest entertainment. Already she, the lowest-ranked player in this event, is the first to reach the semi-finals after Agnieszka Radwanska knocked out Garbine Muguruza 7-6 (7-1), 6-3 yesterday.

Indeed, the Russian has won both her matches in the White Group in a manner that suggests no feat is beyond her: the gangly Pliskova, for instance, has more aces, 524, than anyone on tour and yet Kuznetsova out-aced her 6-2 last night.

To be fair, Pliskova's serve - she won fewer first-serve points than her rival last night - seemed to be out of tune and later she confessed: "I felt a little bit my shoulder, so that's why maybe the first serve was not that fast and not that good."

In a topsy-turvy match, Pliskova, her forehand initially humming, started more capably. She broke to 3-1 in the first set and then held to 4-1 after smartly chasing down a drop shot. There's a bit of a giraffe to her, awkward in her movement and yet fast enough.

But just when she appeared in the ascendancy, she hit a smash out, gave away a double fault, volleyed long and was broken to 4-3. This faulty tennis was evidently contagious, for in the next game Kuznetsova hit backhands into the net, tossed in a double fault, was broken to 3-5 and subsequently lost the set.

When Pliskova broke in the first game of the second set, Kuznetsova started to wake up. It's almost like she has to be pushed to get better, as if she needs a cause to find her resilient self. Asked yesterday after the match how much energy she has left, she dryly said: "If I would know I would answer that. Today the first set I thought, I don't know, I felt really sore and tired. Then I said, Look, I still can be there. You know, I thought, I'll try."

Earlier this week against Radwanska she cut her hair in a fury - her hairdresser, she laughed, saw a picture of it and told her "I'm going to kill you" - and stormed back. Yesterday she dug deep without dramatics. Pliskova was unsurprised and said later: "She is very strong woman and she can really play tennis."

Kuznetsova steadied and won the second set 6-2 and the third set - 1hr 9min - was a masterpiece, some of it shotmaking, most of it tension. In one game the Russian hit a singing forehand cross-court and broke, the next the Czech smacked a backhand down the line and broke back. Momentum was seized, only to be let go.

Kuznetsova served for the match at 5-3 and Pliskova at 6-5. On they went and even Nostradamus couldn't have predicted what would happen next. Kuznetsova led 6-3 in the tie-breaker with three match points and then Pliskova levelled it at 6-6. Neither would allow the other to win.

Finally, eventually, incredibly, Kuznetsova hit a backhand down the line and the match was done and kisses were exchanged. Later she was asked: If a film was made about her life this past week, what would she would call it? In typically amusing style, she replied, the title would be either Life of a Hustler or Workaholic.

The Russian has now run more than 5.5km at high speed within a very short space. She looks tired but inspired as she continues to rediscover a love for tennis at 31. It is beautiful to behold. And, for any sports fan, not to be missed.