“It’s tennis, you get nerves, I wanted to win so much and it was a great atmosphere.” – Svetlana Kuznetsova.
When Kuznetsova was set to face in the third round of the Australian Open last year’s finalist Justine Henin, a woman she had a dismal 2-16 lifetime record against, the consensus was that “Sveta” would battle hard against the Belgian, but in the end Henin would find a way to outlast the Russian if not in the rallies, but at least in the all important battle of nerves. But it didn’t turn out that way. The match wasn’t the greatest display of tennis of all time, but Kuznetsova’s heavy groundstrokes along with Henin’s attempt to end rallies too quickly along with ill-constructed forays to the net found the Russian with an almost improbable chance to serve for the match 6-4, 5-4.
Kuznetsova, despite winning two Grand Slam titles, has a reputation of getting tight during big moments including last summer in San Diego when she choked away a commanding lead versus Agnieszka Radwanska in the final before Kuznetsova pulled herself together in the third set to finally win. So when Kuznetsova stepped up to the line to serve out Henin, most everyone figured “Sveta” would hand the next game to Henin which Kuznetsova promptly did with a series of nervous serves and misfired groundstrokes.
At that point, many watching thought, “Ok, Henin’s going to pull herself together and close out this set and then the match.”
But guess what, surprise, surprise, Henin got tight too and served a nervy game herself to hand the break right back to Kuznetsova. The next fifteen minutes of the match then became almost unbearable to watch as the Russian, again serving for the match, couldn’t hold her nerve and let Henin break her to force a tiebreak. Finally, many thought, Henin will show us that trademark fight of hers and close this thing out.
The tiebreak ended up being one of the worst I’ve ever seen with both women unable to get the ball over the net. At one point, Martina Navratilova, doing commentary for Tennis Channel, joked, “I don’t understand why the net is getting in the way so much.” Eventually, Kuznetsova found herself with two match points at 6-4 in the tiebreak on her serve, but then gave both points away. By some miracle, both women played some of the best points of the match that gave Kuznetsova her third match point which she lost but Henin was only too happy to give back with a double fault. Finally, Henin ended her misery, and ours, by hitting a forehand wide to give Kuznetsova the victory 6-4, 7-6 (8).
In her press conference, Henin admitted she wasn’t “100% percent”, citing her elbow injury that she’s still recovering from. But she didn’t use that as an excuse for the loss. Henin said, “I know I’m not 100%. I knew it before walking on the court. That’s why I say there are no excuses. I decided to play not being 100%. I think Svetlana played a good match. She has been really much more aggressive than me, coming a lot to the net and going for the winners. She has, yeah, all the credit today.”
Kuznetsova probably summed up the match best when she said afterwards, “I think I fighted against myself very well and also I did against Justine. So I’m pretty pleased. I was quite lucky actually. It was like a lottery a little bit the tiebreak. It was crazy. We had some great rallies out there and I fought hard. Just happy I win in two sets.”
So while Kuznetsova moves on to face Francesca Schiavone in the fourth round, Henin, who some picked to win the AO, moves out and likely to move down the rankings, even as far as out of the top 20. Despite her elbow issues, what I find intriguing about this loss for Henin is that she got just as tight as Kuznetsova. Where was that trademark fight and intensity that carried her to seven Grand Slam titles? Why couldn’t Henin find a way to will herself to victory as Maria Sharapova did later in the day against Julia Georges? Sharapova, who endured serving woes of her own throughout the match, was seen during almost every point, clenching her fist. When Sharapova stepped up to the line to serve out the match herself at 5-4 in the third set, the only nerves she was worried about were those in her shoulder, not in her head.
The season is still early enough for Henin to sort out the nerves in her head. And though I’m pleased that Kuznetsova appears to be returning to her Grand Slam winning form, even I will admit that for Kuznetsova to win a battle of nerves versus someone who as “Ataraxis00” on Twitter said yesterday had been “renting space” in Sveta’s head for a long time, is a surprising accomplishment for the Russian but also says a lot about Henin’s head these days.
And it’s not good.