Determined Kuznetsova braced for life at the top
From Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, in Key Biscayne, Florida
THEY were mostly lured to the beauty with the blonde hair tumbling to her shoulders, rather than the one who cannot wait to get rid of braces after 15 months of talking as if she had marbles in her mouth. Svetlana Kuznetsova may not match Maria Sharapova in the “cor blimey” stakes, but she has every intention of becoming just as accustomed to a leading position amid the women’s tennis hierarchy.
A year ago, at the Nasdaq-100 Open, an invitation to meet the top eight women’s seeds was more of a fireside chat with Serena and Venus Williams. Sharapova, then untapped as a player of grand-slam event-winning potential, was ignored but for a couple of British writers. Yesterday, Sharapova was the main attraction, and not many players who have lost their previous match 6-0, 6-0 garner such devotion.
NI_MPU('middle');Sharapova is ranked No 3 in the world behind Lindsay Davenport, the American who is absent this week, and Amélie Mauresmo, of France. There follows in the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour standings another three Russians, Elena Dementieva, who has not won a grand-slam title, and Anastasia Myskina and Kuznetsova, who both have. Kuznetsova is the US Open champion, having conquered New York last September in a year when her 60 singles wins was third only to Davenport and Mauresmo’s 63.
There is something brutally frank about Kuznetsova that is positively disarming. “I am always open, I have nothing to hide,” she says. She attacks the English language with all the gusto of her ball-striking. There is a lack of compromise, which is, she says, “the Russian thing”.
She has spent the past six years as a part-time boarder at the Emilio Sánchez/Sergio Casal academy in Barcelona, the same one that Andy Murray, the great Scottish hope, frequents. They have hit together but when his name is mentioned, she frowns. “Oh, Moore-ray,” she laughs, the braces glinting in the island sunshine. “I did not understand your accent. Yes, I know him, an unbelievable player, I think he can do very well, an unbelievable talent, who plays unbelievably (no doubt about her favourite word). Every tournament he plays he wins, when he strikes the ball you can see his talent.
“I need to put my game more together like him. I am an attacking player with a powerful game, good serve, good forehand. I should maybe come in [to the net] more, but I like my style. My form is great but I still need to improve.”
A spell playing doubles with Martina Navratilova — they won five titles in 2003 — has helped her. “She has taught me how to be a professional and what it takes to be No 1 because that is what I want to be,” Kuznetsova said. “Every day you must go on the court and give your best. All other things have to be out of your mind.”
She casts a glance to where the world is fawning on Sharapova. “We are all different,” Kuznetsova says. “We have relationships with each other, our parents, our coaches, our agents. We all want to be the best we can be. We have to live together on tour maybe for ten years, but everyone is different. Sometimes I need to have a clearer view of how to play and what to do. The only question I have is whether I believe in myself 100 per cent.”
That has never been a worry with Serena Williams. Last night she taped an edition of Oprah
, the US talk show, discussing the book that she has written with her sister, Venus and Serena — Serving from the Hip, 10 better ways to Living, Loving and Winning
It is about helping kids with tips on promoting self-esteem, diets and weight control, using their position as athletic and race role-models to have a decisive impact. “It tells them that they can be like us,” Serena says, barely blushing. Kuznetsova might purchase a copy, but there is not, as far as one knows, a chapter on what happens when your braces come off. “I just want my teeth to be perfect because that is my goal in life, to be perfect,” she said.