Sveta Soaring: Kuznetsova Edges Wozniacki En Route to Australian Open Quarterfinals

Kuznetsova showed plenty of focus late in her three-setter against Wozniacki.

Extending deep into a final set, the meeting between former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova featured two women of substantial credentials who had underperformed over the past year.  While Wozniacki edged within two points of a third straight quarterfinal here, the Russian gathered her spirits to sweep the last three games for a 6-2 2-6 7-5 win and reach her first quarterfinal in Melbourne since 2009.

After a pair of routine holds to open, the service games grew more tightly contested.  Forced to deuce after holding a 30-0 lead, Wozniacki unwisely stopped play to challenge a call on a later game point, only to see that the ball clearly clipped the baseline.  With a ferocious series of forehands that stretched her opponent outside the doubles alleys, Kuznetsova earned another break point that she converted for a crucial early lead.  The Dane looked undeterred by the early arrears, ripping cross-court backhands with more authority than she had shown in recent months to make inroads on the Russian’s serve.  Also displaying more aggression, or at least the intent, were Wozniacki’s forays to the net.  Those produced mixed results, however, and helped Kuznetsova survive the fourth game after saving two break points.

Under pressure in her next service game as well, Wozniacki struggled to find answers for her unseeded challenger’s forward-moving attack.  Kuznetsova carved out a 15-40 opportunity with a crisply slashed volley but let the break points slip away with a cluster of unforced errors.  Not without note, though, was the explosive forehand down the line that the former #1 struck for a clean winner to save one of the break points.  A heavily maligned shot, Wozniacki’s forehand often offers a barometer of her confidence, so that winner seemed an encouraging sign even though she still trailed by a break.

Soon thereafter, the Dane trailed by a double break courtesy of two netted backhands, normally her steadier wing.  Kuznetsova’s dipping backhand slice appeared to frustrate Wozniacki by disrupting her rhythm and forcing her to hit up on the ball.  Now in full shot-making flight, the Russian opened her service game with an athletic lunge to put away on a one-handed backhand smash.  She served out the set comfortably, although Wozniacki must not have felt too discouraged.  Having lost the first set to Kuznetsova in each of their earlier meetings at majors, she had rallied to win the next two in both.

Just as she did against Lisicki in the first round, Wozniacki bounced back from losing a 6-2 set to claim an early break and a 3-0 lead in the next.  Kuznetsova’s intensity dipped as her unforced errors mounted, and the former #1 took advantage by keeping her groundstrokes deep to draw misfires.  While the games trickled past, the Russian remained mentally absent as even her movement looked less alert and crisp.  This type of letdown had hampered her against Wozniacki before, so it felt no surprise that a double fault quickly yielded an insurance break and positioned her opponent to serve for the second set.

While Kuznetsova broke her at love in a startling turn of events, the Dane returned the favor in the next game by reaching triple set point with bold groundstrokes that pinned her opponent behind the baseline.  One set point vanished with a volley error, the latest of several by Wozniacki, and another disappeared with a forehand winner.  But an entertaining, court-stretching rally on the third ended with a netted forehand by Kuznetsova that extended the match to a final set.

An extended break between sets did little to reverse the momentum, for Wozniacki held to start the decider after striking a clean backhand winner down the line.  The Dane becomes much more dangerous when she shows opponents her ability to create offense, which keeps natural attackers like Kuznetsova wary of what to expect.  Urgently needing to stop the string of games lost on her own serve, the Russian did so with more focused, precise shot-making.  A backhand winner from her in the next game boded well for her return to form, considering that she generally projects more power from her forehand.  That more familiar weapon burst free on a break point, handing her the early third-set lead.

At that juncture, though, Kuznetsova’s groundstrokes faltered again to hand Wozniacki the opening that she needed to prevent her opponent from consolidating the break.  Although a brilliant backhand lob saved the third of three consecutive break points, the former #1 earned a fourth chance—only to let it escape with a netted forehand.  Frustration from the accumulating chances squandered simmered in Wozniacki, producing an uncharacteristic burst of temper when she slammed her racket to the ground.  That burst seemed to revitalize her, leading to the set-equaling break two points later following an aggressive backhand swing volley.

With a much more convincing service game, Wozniacki thrust the pressure back onto Kuznetsova, who had served second in the final set. That pressure initially appeared to bear fruit when the Dane earned double break point, but Kuznetsova saved them with poise and reached game point with a delicate drop shot.  After more deuces and a controversial challenge that produced an argument from the unusually animated Wozniacki, the Russian survived behind two monstrous forehands.  Responding with vigor, the Dane cleaned the edge of the sideline with a backhand winner unusually risky by her standards.

Despite a fine net approach by Kuznetsova, Wozniacki’s hold kept her nose in front as her opponent confronted foot problems.  Earlier in the third set, Sveta had requested treatment on a heavily bandaged foot, but her movement did not seem unduly hampered.  She won a brutally physical rally during which Wozniacki came to the net twice, hit two smashes, and yet somehow still found herself on the defensive at the end of it.  Two routine errors later, though, the Dane held a break point, which vanished with a fine display of net deftness by Kuznetsova.  It became Wozniacki’s turn to face a break point in the ninth game, which she also saved in style.

Greeting that service winner with a fistpump, the Dane celebrated her save of a second with a signature backhand down the line.  A third disappeared with a reckless forehand from Kuznetsova, who found herself forced to serve to stay alive.  That forehand miss understandably seemed to haunt her in the following game, when she swatted a forehand into the middle of the net.  Two points from defeat, she regained her swagger at just the right time to blast another forehand out of Wozniacki’s reach and soon move to 5-5.  Now looking a bit disappointed, the Dane fell behind 0-40 as the shot-making of her opponent continued to soar.

Unforced errors erased the first two of those break points, but a penetrating return on the third left Kuznetsova serving for the match.  She won the first two points convincingly, the second with a bold swing volley, and closed out the match with surprising poise after losing just a single point.

With her ninth win in ten matches, Kuznetsova has capitalized upon the momentum from her week in Sydney, which she remarkably entered as a qualifier.  Up next for her, most likely, is a match against world #1 Azarenka that she enters as a heavy underdog.  But Sveta becomes a dangerous foe when confident, so Vika may have a difficult test ahead of her.