Kuznetsova beats Dementieva for U.S. Open title

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2004

NEW YORK By all rights, Svetlana Kuznetsova should have been a cycling star: Her brother and parents all won or coached others to Olympic medals and world titles in that sport. Kuznetsova gave it a shot, hated it, and moved on to tennis.

What a brilliant career move. Still just 19, with braces on her teeth, she's the U.S. Open champion, the third straight Russian woman to win a major.

Pounding ferocious forehands and covering the baseline with the muscular legs of a Tour de France rider, Kuznetsova overwhelmed Elena Dementieva 6-3, 7-5 Saturday night in the American Grand Slam's first all-Russian final.

''When I played the first game, I was, 'Wow, there are so many people out here.' I was nervous,'' said Kuznetsova, never past the quarterfinals at a major before. ''This morning, I was nervous. I was stiff. But something inside of me was telling me I would be fine.''

As of four months ago, no Russian woman ever won a major, but Anastasia Myskina beat Dementieva in the French Open final, and Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon. Russians occupy half of the top 10 spots in the rankings.

''Russia is just a powerful country,'' said Kuznetsova, the youngest Open champion since Serena Williams was 17 in 1999. ''There's competition between us.''

Until now, Kuznetsova probably was the least-known of her country's crop of rising stars, instead most famous for being Martina Navratilova's former doubles partner. They won five titles as a pair and were the runners-up at the 2003 Open.

How anonymous is Kuznetsova? After a practice session 1 1/2 hours before the match, she walked across the National Tennis Center grounds without getting asked for autographs or photos. She might as well have been another fan in a gray sweat shirt, milling around, waiting for the U.S. Open final to start.

Indeed, during the on-court trophy presentation after the match, U.S. Tennis Association president Alan Schwartz mispronounced her name before correcting himself.

The men's final Sunday has two more recognizable players: top-ranked Roger Federer against 2001 Open champion Lleyton Hewitt. Federer, bidding to become the first man since 1988 to win three majors in a year, beat No. 5 Tim Henman 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, while No. 4 Hewitt eliminated No. 28 Joachim Johansson 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 Saturday afternoon.

Saturday evening began on a somber note, with 20,524 spectators joining in a moment of silence to remember victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recent terrorist attack at a school in Russia. Kuznetsova and Dementieva both wore black ribbons in memory of the hundreds of Russian victims, and they walked out from the locker room wearing blue baseball caps with ''FDNY'' and ''NYPD'' to honor New York's police and fire workers.

The American flag atop the stadium was at half-staff, and a 50-foot flag was unfurled on court before the match. Dementieva asked the crowd to observe another moment of silence after the match.

''It's a great day for me as a tennis player,'' Dementieva said. ''It's a day to remember. You lost hundreds of people on Sept. 11, 2001 Sept. 1, 2004, we lost hundreds of children.''

When play began, Kuznetsova was brilliant, striking winner after winner on the forehand side. She finished with 23 from that wing alone. Dementieva normally has just as good a forehand but was reduced to chasing shots on defense and wound up with a total of just seven winners overall 27 fewer than Kuznetsova.

''I was playing in pain these two weeks,'' said Dementieva, slowed by a left leg injury that was heavily wrapped.

She again was undone by some key double-faults. Her total of serving miscues wasn't nearly as high as earlier in the tournament, but she was broken in every game in which she had at least one of her four double-faults.

And unlike Dementieva's previous opponents at the Open, including new No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo and former No. 1 Jennifer Capriati, Kuznetsova stepped up to hammer forehand returns, making her opponent pay for serves around 75 mph.

''It's all about my serve,'' Dementieva said. ''I really need to have a better serve to win a Grand Slam. Serving like this, I can beat a lot of a players. But Svetlana, she has a great return.''

Dementieva broke Kuznetsova twice in the second set, but then began the very next game with a double-fault each time en route to ceding the advantage right back. The second time, Dementieva ended the game with a double-fault, too.

When Kuznetsova held in the next game to make it 4-all, Dementieva's left leg appeared to buckle a bit while she reached for a backhand, and she went down on that knee.

Dementieva was slow getting to a shot in the next game, but she somehow managed to fight off a break point with a backhand that caught the baseline.

But at 5-5, Dementieva double-faulted to break point, then sailed a forehand wide. Kuznetsova served it out, then climbed into the stands for celebratory hugs, including with Navratilova and coach Sergio Casal.

Her father sent her to work with Casal in Barcelona when Kuznetsova was 15 sometimes she'll yell at herself on court in Spanish. Her father coached five Olympic and world cycling champions, including Kuznetsova's mother, and her brother won a silver in cycling at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

''They're all cycling,'' Kuznetsova said. ''My dad decided: 'She had to do something different.'''

She did try cycling but gave it up after her second race. She hadn't had much success in tennis' Grand Slam tournaments until this U.S. Open, losing in the first round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year.

Dementieva did that, too, but she had a great run at the U.S. Open until Saturday night.

Asked what she loves about tennis, Kuznetsova said: ''I can express myself on the court. It's like a singer singing a song from the heart.''



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