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By LIZ ROBBINS
Published: August 29, 2005
Svetlana Kuznetsova bears only a faint resemblance to the 2004 United States Open champion. She no longer wears braces.
But besides her new smile and her still loquacious nature, Kuznetsova, 20, has found nothing to be easy since winning her first Grand Slam last year. At times, she has made the game even harder than necessary.
"It puts a lot of pressure on me; I expect a lot from myself," Kuznetsova said recently at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. "I have players who want to beat me because I got something in my life which I never had before."
Seeded No. 5, she is in New York to defend her Open title without having won another tournament this year and without having advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the subsequent Grand Slams, losing to Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, to Justine Henin-Hardenne at the French Open and to Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon.
She was ousted in the second and third rounds in two tournaments in California this summer before the Rogers Cup. In that tournament, as the third-seeded player, she wrenched her back serving in the first set of her third round match against Gisela Dulko of Argentina, then ranked No. 35.
Kuznetsova played through the injury - later diagnosed as a back strain - despite contorting in pain.
She lost, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (8), then pulled out of doubles the next day. "I think I should have stopped playing," Kuznetsova said after the match. "But, I don't know, it's something that keeps me there playing. When the match is so close, it's so difficult just to say, 'That's it.'
"I just couldn't take this decision to pull out. I never did it in my life. So this was hard to me."
This perseverance, and her stubborn competitive streak, may come from her family. Her mother was a six-time cycling world champion from St. Petersburg, Russia, and her father has coached cycling champions. Her brother was the 1996 Olympic silver medalist in cycling.
Kuznetsova's grit propelled her to a major victory, but it might also have hindered her. "She's a little bull; reminds me of me," said Martina Navratilova, Kuznetsova's former doubles partner.
"She just needs to calm down," Navratilova said. "I think she's feeling the pressure a little bit. She lost a few matches. I think what was working for her, when it doesn't work, she's a bit stubborn. She needs to sort of go to Plan B. But she's like: 'I'm going to keep hitting it hard. It's going to work.' "
Kuznetsova, with solid legs like those of a cyclist, does not have one decisive weapon in her game yet, and has struggled against the more consistent players. "It's hard when you're on the top and not winning matches," she said. "Now I'm expecting more from myself, and I want to do more and I know I can do it."
The tennis commentator Tracy Austin said she thought that last year's softer Open field smoothed Kuznetsova's path to the final against her countrywoman Elena Dementieva. Kuznetsova defeated Davenport, who was playing with a strained hip flexor, in three sets in the semifinals.
On the draw's other side, Jennifer Capriati eliminated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals amid a flurry of unforced errors by Williams and several questionable line calls. Kim Clijsters was injured, and Henin-Hardenne was feeling the effects of a virus.
"Kuznetsova won the U.S. Open, but I don't think she's ready to win every Grand Slam title," said Austin, a two-time Open champion. "She doesn't have as big a game as a Davenport, she doesn't have as big a game as Serena when she's at her best."
Kuznetsova's breakthrough victory remains a treasured souvenir and a painful reminder. At the club where she trains in Spain, her colleagues compiled a video tribute of her Open triumph for a New Year's party. Kuznetsova was thrilled but embarrassed.
"I'm showing it to people who want me to show it to them," she said. "I watch it a couple of times, and I am getting sick of it."
Kuznetsova will not be able to duck the attention in New York, as much as she would like to stay incognito.
"I just want to stay a little bit longer like this; now I have to go there and defend it," she said. "I know it's going to be hard, even harder than last year. But I did it once. I have nothing to lose. I'm just going to keep playing and see how far it goes."