Kuznetsova finds form at right time to challenge clay-court champion

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The Independent Online

The last two months have shown that the world No 10 has the mental strength as well as the physical prowess to stake a regular place at the game's top table. Victory in the Nasdaq-100 Open at Key Biscayne, where she beat Martina Hingis, Amélie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova, restored her self-belief, which has been evident in her progress to this afternoon's French Open final against Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Kuznetsova has come from behind to win her last three matches, against Francesca Schiavone, who took the first set 6-1, Dinara Safina, who led 5-1, and Nicole Vaidisova, who was a set and 5-3 up. If early nerves have raised question marks over Kuznetsova, a steely resolve to play her way out of trouble have provided the answers.

"Key Biscayne was a huge thing for me because before that I didn't believe in myself," Kuznetsova said. "I didn't believe that I could win successive matches against top players. Since I won at Key Biscayne I know that I can do this. Now I never doubt myself."

Kuznetsova will need all that self-will against the world's best female player on clay. Henin-Hardenne does not believe she has been playing her best tennis over the past fortnight but she has not lost a set en route to her third final - she won in 2003 and 2005 - and has won 10 of 11 matches against the Russian.

Nevertheless, Kuznetsova can take courage from the fact that she had match point against the Belgian in the fourth round here last year - having been in exactly the same position against the eventual 2004 winner, Anastasia Myskina, 12 months earlier - and ran her close when they met on clay in Berlin last month.

"I really had to play well to win that match," Henin-Hardenne said. "She's a great player. She's won a Grand Slam tournament already. She has the experience. It's going to be tough and I know I'll have to be at my best level if I want to win. We've always had tough matches, especially on clay. She's very powerful. I think that helps her on a clay court, especially with her forehand."

Henin-Hardenne's mother died 11 years ago, three years after bringing her daughter to Roland Garros for the first time to watch her favourite player, Steffi Graf, play Monica Seles in the final. Henin-Hardenne told her mother that day: "One day I'll be on that court and maybe I'll win."

The Belgian's motivation remains as keen as ever. "It's always very special to play well here in Paris," she said. "It's the place where I want to play my best tennis and where I want to win. I don't think that will ever change."