Kuznetsova sweat through one outfit and nearly a second. As doubts emerged following missed break opportunities, the effects of three title-less years seemed to wear on the former Grand Slam champion. In a poor return here or a foot-fault there, the maddening inconsistencies that contributed to the drought were evident.
But the wear and worry and uncertainty evaporated as a Nara return flew long to give the Russian a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win. Kuznetsova lit up, holding her arms outward and smiling as if to say “finally!” For the first time since 2010, Kuznetsova was a champion.
“It feels like it’s been too long,” Kuznetsova said.
“It’s a great feeling, it’s very nice. You play tennis, you work hard to improve things,” she said. “After you win slams, not winning in three years is really hard.”
Ten years ago, Kuznetsova charged through the U.S. Open field and into tennis’s elite with her first Grand Slam win. From March 2004 through July 11, 2010, she never ranked outside the WTA’s top 20, reaching No. 2 in 2007 and winning her second Grand Slam title at the 2009 French Open.
But her 13th singles title, which came four years ago Saturday in San Diego, proved unlucky. The following years were peppered with close calls and hampered by a 2012 injury that hindered her through the rest of that year’s schedule.
This year, she made the third round of the French Open. She clawed back into the top 30, earned wins over top-10 players like Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard. All she needed, she said, was for “things to click.”
“In my level of the game, I can be top 10, but it’s a matter of results,” she said. “The year is very long, and if one match would go one way, it can change the whole year. . . . I completely believe and know I can be there.”
Nara, 22, didn’t let things “click” for Kuznetsova on Sunday. The emergent star of the Citi Open pestered Kuznetsova, rarely stumbling on a return, forcing the veteran all around the court, breaking her or breaking back, looking unable to lose until she did.
But Kuznetsova wouldn’t give in either. She absorbed Nara’s grit and her own mistakes, and smoothed over inconsistent moments with just enough moments of recovery. She seemed to feel the weight of her four-year drought more and more as it came closer to ending, her pace slowing, her grunts and post-point celebrations growing louder and louder as if to drown out doubts of past near misses.
“There are many things in your head, but you try to put it back as much as you can,” Kuznetsova said. “I was just trying to hang in there.”
When match point landed past her baseline, Kuznetsova became the first former Grand Slam champion to win women’s singles at the Citi Open, a 14-time WTA singles champion four years in the making.
“I try to be positive overall, but definitely brings you special feeling to win a title,” Kuznetsova said. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m not winning titles,’ but it’s always great to win one.”