There is a timelessness to Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The Russian world No9 turns 32 next month, but as her coach Carlos Martinez describes her: “She looks like she’s 19. You can watch how she’s running on the court, how she fights, she’s like a warrior.”
Apt words from the Spaniard, who has been involved in Kuznetsova’s career since 2012, and has been her main coach since the start of last year.
Kuznetsova – or ‘Sveta’ as her friends, family, and fans affectionately call her – has experienced one career rejuvenation after the other over the past 17 years on tour. She won her first Grand Slam as a teenage prodigy at the 2004 US Open then won her second five years later at the French Open.
Her path has taken her to incredible highs and disappointing lows and last season, she returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2009, and qualified for the year-end Championships also for the first time in seven years.
She is seeded No8 at Roland Garros this fortnight – opens against Christina McHale on Sunday on Court Suzanne Lenglen – and is considered by many of her peers as well as tennis pundits as one of the top favourites for the title.
Kuznetsova has amassed a solid 20-7 win-loss record in 2017, that saw her reach the final of Indian Wells, semis of Madrid, and fourth round at the Australian Open.
She is yet to find her way back to her Grand Slam-winning form of the past, but there has been an evident transformation in Kuznetsova over the last two seasons. Besides putting together more consistent results, the St. Petersburg-native has simply been happier on court. She has talked about how she’s now enjoying the journey more and more, and how putting in the work is no longer a laborious effort.
“The important thing is to stay happy,” she said at the end of last season.
It’s a solid motto to live by.
Her coach, Martinez, seems to have played a part in this positive version of Kuznetsova.
A quick glance at their Instagram feeds will give you an idea of how well they get along and how much fun they have on the court.
His belief in her knows no bounds.
“For me, honestly not because she’s Sveta, but for me she’s the best player, in general. She can play fast, she can go to the net, drop shot, slice… everything,” Martinez told Sport360 ahead of the French Open.
“I believe that for the past three years, she’s experienced a positive change in her mentality. We talked about focusing more on quality than quantity. We don’t have to do too much. When she’s on the court, she has to give 100 per cent. If one day she is on the court for 20 minutes, that’s fine, if it’s a two-hour practice, that’s fine too, as long as it’s of high quality.
“We also introduced some physical routines that have aided her mentally. Before practice, after practice… it helped her become mentally disciplined, she’s become more organised which means she can see things on court more clearly. We made these routines every day, and she started to be more focused on the court.”
Kuznetsova first started working with Martinez at the end of 2012. She had been out of the game injured for six months and her ranking slipped to 85 in the world. A few weeks into their partnership, Kuznetsova made the quarter-finals of the 2013 Australian Open but they parted ways in May after she lost in Rome in the first round to Simona Halep.
“Little by little I felt that she didn’t believe in me. We had a very good relation, but after Rome, she lost in the first round against Halep, I said ‘Sveta I feel that you have no confidence in me, I think it’s better if you find someone else because like this at the end we will break our relation, and we are good friends’. She said ‘yes, I feel with you it’s difficult to make the next step in my level’. It happens, so we stopped,” recalls Martinez.
Kuznetsova went to Roland Garros alone a couple of weeks later. It was then that Martinez received a surprise message from the Russian.
“The tournament starts on Sunday, and I remember on Saturday night, at like 11pm or midnight, she wrote me one message, ‘Carlos, I’m playing against Makarova, I don’t know how to play, I’m playing so bad, can you tell me how to play?’ I said ‘yes, play like this, like this, like this’. After one hour she sent me one more message, ‘Carlos, can you do me a favour? Can you come to Paris?’ And I said okay,” said the Spaniard. “She made quarter-finals, she almost beat Serena Williams, so she did well.”
Kuznetsova then started working with Hernan Gumy, and then brought in Martinez to travel more frequently with her. By the start of 2016, Martinez became Kuznetsova’s sole coach, with Anastasia Myskina helping out briefly during the Middle East swing of Doha and Dubai in February.
Martinez can trace back the change in Kuznetsova to that moment before the 2013 French Open.
“I felt that something changed. She started to enjoy when she was on the court, I felt that she was running with this passion, she wanted to be better and better every day,” he says. “I never put her under pressure to win. I said ‘okay Sveta, you are doing well, the day by day has to be like this. Don’t worry because the results will come, you are a great tennis player, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone’.
“She had this, not problem, but she always wanted to show the people, or her family, that she was very good and she could win.
“I told her ‘Sveta you have a very long career, an unbelievable career, you have two Grand Slams, you don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re a great player. So try your best, if you win, you win, if you lose, you lose, nothing happens. But try to do your best when you’re on the court, doesn’t matter’.
“And then little by little she started to win, she started fighting, she was fighting like crazy, and at the end when you win two or three matches like this, you get a lot of confidence, you know that when you’re in the third set, running and running and running, there’s something inside that says that you’re going to win. And I felt this now for two and a half years maybe.”
Having turned pro back in 2000, and having won her first major 13 years ago, you wonder how Kuznetsova still has it in her to put in the work, compete, and fight for titles.
“Because she loves tennis,” was Martinez’s simple explanation. “She’s watching tennis all the time, now she’s in the stadium watching Rafa (play a match in Madrid). And when she’s at the hotel she’s watching matches, she knows all the results of all the players.
“That’s something good because that means you have passion for this sport. If you have passion, and you’re enjoying it, then it doesn’t matter how old you are.
“We had this conversation this week I think, she was practicing with Ana Bogdan, and Sveta didn’t know her. If this were another top player, they’d prefer to practice with someone else, or a top player. But for Sveta it’s okay, let’s play, practice, perfect. She’s very humble and it doesn’t matter who’s across the net from her.
“For me, the difference between Sveta now, and other players, is that she’s 30 but she looks like she’s 19. You can watch how she’s running on the court, how she fights, she’s like a warrior, it’s very nice, for me it’s a pleasure to be with her because I improved with her a lot.”
World No2 Karolina Pliskova named Kuznetsova as her top favourite to win on clay and the Czech is not alone in her opinion. But Kuznetsova refuses to get side-tracked by high expectations.
“I never felt or thought like being a contender for anything,” Kuznetsova said in Madrid. “I just want to focus on match by match because now the level of each match is extremely high, I feel like all the girls are playing so well. I don’t want to see it as a huge chance or anything. I just want to do my best, in each match, and that’s it. I appreciate that they see me good on clay but I need to work for that.”
In the absence of Serena Williams (pregnant), Victoria Azarenka (in the final weeks of her maternity leave), and Maria Sharapova (no wild card), the women’s draw is as open as ever and there is an opportunity for someone like Kuznetsova to achieve something big again and perhaps even return to the top five.
“Of course there’s an opening,” says Martinez. “This is not a goal for us, we work day by day but we feel that now you go to Roland Garros and nobody knows who will win. And this is very good.
“Because if you fight every day, you have more chances to win than others because Sveta has very good tennis. If all the stars align maybe we have chances, why not? It’s our dream, and now the most important thing is that she feels that she can do it. She doesn’t say it but she feels that ‘okay, now I can feel that I can win’.”
It all starts on Sunday against McHale.