Svetlana Kuznetsova began the French Open as a 100-1 outsider, quite a price considering the world No 28 has twice won Grand Slam titles and was champion here five years ago.
At a tournament where the favourites have been falling like novices at Aintree, there are probably a few shrewd punters still enjoying a run for their money after backing Kuznetsova, a trusted course and distance winner. After her 6-7 6-1 9-7 victory over Petra Kvitova on Saturday, the Russian is through to the fourth round for the 10th time in the last 11 years.
With only one of the world’s top six players left in the field and Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 champion, joining the fallen, Kuznetsova should fancy her chances. It might seem as though the Russian has been around as long as graphite rackets and yellow balls, but she is only 28. Injuries have taken their toll on a player who made her breakthrough with her 2004 US Open victory and has not won a title for four years.
Kuznetsova last month reached her first final since 2011 and is proven on clay, especially here. She has played in two finals at Roland Garros, having lost to Justine Henin in 2006 and beaten Dinara Safina in 2009, and made the quarter-finals or better on six occasions.
With Kvitova also finding some of her best form, a quality encounter was expected. The two did not disappoint as the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd were treated to one of the best women’s matches of the tournament. A gripping cut-and-thrust lasted three and a quarter hours with 37 break points, Kuznetsova converting eight out of 25 and Kvitova four out of 12.
Kuznetsova is a gritty fighter who chases down every ball, while her variety of shots can upset the rhythm of any opponent. Kvitova’s game is more one-dimensional. The 2011 Wimbledon champion is at her best when her huge ground strokes rip through the court, but when the 24-year-old Czech strikes the ball as well she did here she can be a threat on any surface.
When Kvitova went off for hamstring treatment in the second set it seemed her day was done, but the world No 6 responded superbly to lead 3-1 at the start of the third set. Kuznetsova then went 4-3 up, at which stage the Russian stood and applauded as Kvitova saved a break point with a stunning stop volley.
Kvitova served for the match at 5-4 and 7-6, but each time Kuznetsova held her nerve. Kvitova’s broke when she served at 7-8 as she handed Kuznetsova victory with four successive errors, including a double fault.
Kuznetsova felt she had run twice as far as Kvitova. “I almost felt like Rafa [Nadal] out there,” she smiled. “The difference is that I cannot make winners from that far behind [the baseline] so I have to go inside [the court] a bit. I knew I was going to give everything and run every mile, every metre I could, put as many balls back as possible and be aggressive. Petra was inside the court and I was next to the fans. I left everything out there.”
Kuznetsova now faces another Czech, Lucie Safarova, who beat Ivanovic 6-3 6-3. It was Safarova’s fifth successive victory over the former world No 1. Ivanovic’s fellow Serb, Jelena Jankovic, is now the second highest-ranked player left in the tournament. The world No 7 beat Sorana Cirstea 6-1 6-2.
The highest-ranked player left is Romania’s Simona Halep. The world No 4 is reading Harry Potter to improve her English, but hardly needs to improve her game. The 22-year-old trounced Spain’s Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor 6-3 6-0 and has dropped only 11 games in her first three matches. She next plays Sloane Stephens, who beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-3 6-4.