Building Of A Champion: Coaches Reveal Story Behind Kuznetsova's Rise
Svetlana Kuznetsova By Sanchez-Casal Academy Staff
Svetlana Kuznetsova, "Sveta" as we call her, arrived at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona in 1999. She was about 14 years old. Her mother, Galina Tsareva, was an Olympic cycling champion and her father, Alexandr Kuznetsov, a cycling coach who was conducting preseason training in a city nearby, about 100 kilometers away.
But Svetlana wanted to take a different path: she wanted to become a tennis player.
The first time we met Sveta, our staff at the Sanchez-Casal Academy shared a common reaction: she was so shy she would not look at you, she had no confidence in herself, but every time she hit the ball the noise it made was scary. It was something we had not seen or heard before from a girl, maybe slightly similar to Andy Roddick. She reminded us a little bit of Arantxa (Sanchez Vicario) when was little — an incredible talent — but with strokes we had not seen from junior girls her age before.
We had a staff meeting and decided that we would help her. At that time we just started the Academy and didn’t have many players at Sveta's level.
She felt very relaxed because we decided at the very beginning to establish a very simple goal: to train Sveta to become the best player possible; an all-court player who didn't have to win from the first day. I think she appreciated and valued this approach because in Russia, Sveta was always under intense pressure. We believe our approach helped improve her confidence as Sveta saw she was winning matches because she was a better player, not because she was pressured to win.
Less than two years later, she was already the No. 1 junior in the world at the age of 16. We tried to convince the Spanish Tennis Federation to help her become a Spanish citizen, but they didn’t believe the potential that we saw in her. The Federation's president at that time said: "She’s a mediocre player who never will be in the top 20. We have people offering players like this to us every month." Yet today, after Arantxa's retirement and Conchita (Martinez) in the final phase of her career, Spain is in deep trouble in its efforts to produce top female players.
At the age of 17, Sveta began traveling with Arantxa and her team of coaches from the Academy. That year she won her first professional event in singles and three doubles tournaments together with Arantxa. Playing and training with Arantxa taught Sveta discipline, strategy and how to be a true professional. Arantxa opened the first door for her and helped mentor her. At that time, Arantxa was Martina Navratilova's partner. Martina was also training in our traveling group. Once Arantxa retired at the end of the year, Martina, who is smart and knows talent, talked Sveta into playing with her. In 2003 they won four titles and played the year-end WTA Tour Championships. Martina taught her how to play inside the court. She opened the second door for Sveta.
When two former No. 1 players — Arantxa and Martina — recorded some of their best recent doubles results playing with a rookie, it proved to many that Sveta had talent. Sveta's confirmation as a top singles player came the same year as she advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals and finished in the top 30. Stephan, her personal coach from the Academy, traveled with her for those two years, which were the most difficult ones. Giselle, the academy's physical coach did a great job improving her mobility, which was one of her weaknesses. Both coaches stayed with Martina when she decided to play with Lisa Raymond and go for the Olympics in 2004. Sveta was very disappointed and was ready to quit playing doubles.
All the coaching credit for those two years of Sveta's career should go to Stephan who worked with her through her maturation as a player and a woman.
"She can be lovely and great to work with as well as very difficult and not understandable," Stephan said of Sveta.
Angel Gimenez took over the coaching and with Sergio’s (Sergio Casal) help convinced her that she still had to improve two very important aspects of her game: her serve and her play inside the court. Angel and Sergio told Sveta if she didn't play doubles, it would be more difficult for her to fulfill her potential. After a long conversation, she understand our point and accepted.
Sveta started to play doubles with Elena Likhovtseva to prepare for the Olympics. Our goal for 2004 was to take more advantage of her serve in order to play more effectively inside the court. She wanted to qualify for the Olympics and the year-end WTA Tour Championships.
The preseason was a very demanding training session. Sveta worked harder than ever before and her hard work paid off as the results came immediately. We believed Sveta was making major improvements. She was maturing, believing in herself and realizing it was all about her. She started to win regularly and improve her results. Her losses were usually to the higher-ranked players. In March, Sveta was ranked 20th when she handed top-ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne her first loss of the season, a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 defeat at the $600,000 Qatar Total Open in Doha. The victory came nearly a week after Sveta beat Venus Williams.
"The other players started to respect her (then)," Angel said. "If she controls her power something big will happen."
At Roland Garros, Sveta had two match points against Anastasia Myskina, but could not close the match. Myskina went on to beat Dementieva to win Roland Garros and Sveta knew she had nearly beaten the champion. From the red clay, Sveta went to the grass courts and won in Eastbourne. At the Olympics she almost won a medal, losing to Mauresmo in a close match.
The Myskina win in Paris, Maria Sharapova's win at Wimbledon and victories by Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova and Elena Bovina in others events served as incredible motivators for Sveta. Competitive images and hunger are the most successful motivators. Most importantly, Sveta believed in herself and knew it was time to show she could win. She found maturity and started to get results.
Sveta already registered the fastest women's serve at the U.S. Open ( 208km/h), struck the most aces (44) and had only lost one set to Davenport in the tournament before she beat Dementieva in the final. Based on the way she played throughout the tournament, our coaches believed she could take the title.
"Serving this way and with a bit of order in her game, she is much better than all other players," said Sergio Casal, who was coaching Sveta at the Open. "She can win this thing."
She did exactly that.
Sveta's parents, who come from an athletic background, deserve credit because they let every person at the Academy do their job and do the best for their daughter. Sveta was very mature in most cases, making big decisions that helped her career, which is not always common on the tour.
Sveta followed her success at the U.S. Open by winning her second consecutive tournament title in Bali and extending her winning streak to 11 matches in the process. She will go to Beijing next, where she will play doubles with Arantxa. She is also supposed to play in Stuttgart, Moscow, the Zurich Masters and the Fed Cup finals. But this could change if she keeps playing so well and so much. It is tough for those players who advance so far in each event to maintain such a demanding schedule all year.
We believe Sveta's confidence improved substantially, but she still has to be more consistent in believing that she can be the best and must continue to keep working hard to reach that goal.
To relax and to find inspiration, she listens to music all the time. She is addicted to this mp3 player and has more that 2,000 songs on it. She is truly a music alcoholic.
"Sveta" is her nickname name because Svetlana is to difficult to say in Spanish, and "Kuzne" is another nickname as well. Sveta is very easy going and has a good sense of humor. Sometimes, because of her shyness, people thinks she is arrogant. But she is not arrogant and people who think that usually don't know her very well.
Sveta is the best achievement for our Academy in six years of hard work. Arantxa had great results as well, but was already complete as a player when we worked together. The same may be true for Bovina, who has trained with us since June. Many other WTA players come to our Academy for part-time practices: Jelena Dokic, Maggie Maleeva, Chanda Rubin, Daniela Hantuchova, Janette Husarova and others. Most of our players are younger, from ages 13 to 17, and do their education at the same time. We believe this is very important.
On the boys side, we're very proud to say that the junior U.S. Open champion Andre Murray is also living and training with us part-time. Other players such as Juan Monaco and Gilles Muller also came out from our program.
Our staff includes five former Davis Cup coaches who share all responsibilities for all our players. We are very proud to work with the U.S. Open women's champion and U.S. Open boys champion and believe both will continue to develop as players.