Svetlana Kuznetsova’s 6-4 6-2 drubbing of a tight Dinara Safina in the French Open final served as a particularly unfitting conclusion to what was one of the most enjoyable majors in recent years. Coming back from a relatively bland 2008 edition, where the story of choice was who wasn’t playing, the 2009 event was at times inspiring, at many times absurd, and always compelling. The drama began almost immediately as both Venus and Serena Williams, usually on cruise control through the first few rounds, were taken to three sets by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Klara Zakopalova, respectively. Even when we think they’ve drawn a tough first round opponent, they will often get through dropping less than five games. That was when the alarm bells started to go off: this one would be different.
And so it was, as seed after seed began to fall. This is always a tough situation for women’s tennis because, if the seeds all get through, then it is criticized for not having enough depth, but if the seeds lose, then it is criticized for not having enough dominance at the top. This time, when the seeds lost, it was because the opponent played exceptionally well. Victoria Azarenka completely outplayed Ana Ivanovic to eliminate her in the fourth round, and Agnes Szavay played tennis she hasn’t shown since 2007 to defeat Venus Williams easily. Sorana Cirstea finally showed what the tennis world knew she possessed as she outlasted Jelena Jankovic in an epic 9-7 in the third, and Sam Stosur served like a top-10 player to eliminate Dementieva. All of this was in direct contrast to this year’s Australian Open, where Ivanovic collapsed against Kleybanova and Jankovic barely showed up against Bartoli. This time, the underdog had to win it. Basically, the only seed who wasn’t challenged early on was Dinara Safina, who took advantage of a light draw to sprint into the second week.
Ultimately, the two biggest news items of the first week had little to do with anyone’s play. The first story was Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, who was hit with a ball by Serena Williams, but refused to acknowledge it to the chair umpire. Martinez Sanchez should have lost the point, but she won it, which sparked a press conference war of words with Williams accusing and Martinez Sanchez denying. Williams went on to win that match, so there was at least some sense of justice. When people went discussing whether Martinez Sanchez cheated, they were all aflutter about the screeching grunt of Michelle Larcher de Brito. Larcher de Brito has been touted for years as the next big thing, and she had a mini-breakthough here, making the third round in her first major main draw. More than her promising play, she is known for her grunt, which is by far the loudest on tour. Her third round opponent Aravane Rezai had quite a problem with it, complaining to the chair and again in the press conference. Once again the voyeuristic press was more than happy to latch on to this relative non-story. The furor will likely cause the tour to once again revisit the question of how loud is too loud.
Back in the tennis, the Quarterfinal lineup was a delightful mix of the expected (Safina, S. Williams) and the completely surprising (Stosur, Cirstea, Cibulkova). Joining those women was Maria Sharapova, which could not have been too surprising as she came into this tournament as a complete question mark. With little match play, no one knew whether she was heading for a first round exit or for the title. The match of the tournament took place in this round as Svetlana Kuznetsova finally put it together when she needed to and eliminated Serena Williams. Kuznetsova went up a set and 5-3, just as she did in Australia against Williams, and just as she has done so many times in her career. And so, it came as a shock to absolutely no one that she blew the 5-3 lead and Williams went on to win the second set. The Svetlana Kuznetsova of October 2004-May 2009 would have collapsed at this point. maybe mustering a couple of games in the third set as she went out with a whimper. This time she fought and ultimately won 7-5 in a thrilling third set. Since winning the 2004 US Open, Kuznetsova hasn’t been that player. She hasn’t been the one who is able to fight off bad games and blown leads. She hasn’t been a champion.
This week, she was. She went on to face a resurgent Sam Stosur in the Semifinals. Sam missed a year of her career, out with viral meningitis and Lyme disease, so to make it to a major Semifinal on her worst surface was an amazing accomplishment. Stosur acquitted herself quite well in this match, coming back from a deficit in the second set to level the match. Kuznetsova had the chance to blow it again, giving up a second set lead and going to the third, but the Williams match changed something. Her body language was better, but more importantly, her shotmaking improved. She wasn’t going for insane crosscourt forehands like she used to. She played patient, composed, and mature points to win the third. In the final, she would meet Dinara Safina, who eliminated Cibulkova in the other Semifinal.
This match was Safina’s to take. She was the pre-tournament favorite, world #1, dominant performer of the clay season, but the pressure was too much. As she watched her opponent crumble and make uncharacteristic errors, Kuznetsova had clearly changed from uncertain challenger to confidant winner, from choker to champion. In a tournament that was full of stimulating three set matches, the routine two-set final seemed to be a bit of a letdown. Everyone wanted there to be another three set epic, but in the spirit of this tournament, where Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Dominika Cibulkova, Michelle Larcher De Brito, Maria Sharapova, Agnes Szavay, Victoria Azarenka, and Sorana Cirstea taught us to expect the unexpected, maybe it was better this way.