Not that kind of message: no Johnny Manziel moneybags, no Yasiel Puig bat flip, not the kind of pointed fist pumps a heated Jack Sock threw Milos Raonic’s way the night before at Rock Creek Park.
No, the most decorated woman remaining in this year’s Citi Open field held her thumb and pointer finger a few centimeters apart. She had seen Flipkens frown, worried the ball may actually have been in. She wanted to let Flipkens, who fell to Kuznetsova in the second-round match in straight sets, know she had just missed.
That’s Kuznetsova, the two-time Grand Slam champion and 11th winningest player in WTA history in career earnings, just behind Martina Hingis. The Russian native does things her way, which isn’t to say she’s a diva, because most divas would’ve let Flipkens squirm.
“She has her feet on the ground, which is the most important thing from what she’s achieved in tennis,” said fellow Russian player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has played on Fed Cup teams with Kuznetsova. “. . . She gives 100 percent in tennis, and she does everything with soul.”
Everything about her has soul, including her outfits — though some might choose different words to describe her shirt-and-skirt combination of deep blue striped with cumulonimbus shaped bands of white, which she wore last summer.
That outfit drew attention but not because anyone was surprised to see Kuznetsova wearing the sky. Instead of her former sponsor Fila, the Italian giant, she was sporting Qiaodan, a new and relatively unknown Chinese brand announcing itself on the 2004 U.S. Open and 2009 French Open champion.
Kuznetsova had decided it was time for a sponsor change in the midst of the longest injury break of her career. She had suffered a knee injury after a loss in the 2012 French Open, then was bounced in the first round of Wimbledon when she tried to play through the pain. After playing in 40 straight Grand Slams, she withdrew from the 2012 U.S. Open.
She says now she needed the break, exhausted from traveling 10 months of the year across a 12-year career as a professional. But as her ranking fell from No. 28 out of the top 70, she also needed a boost.
Her agent told her a new Chinese brand wanted to sponsor her, so Kuznetsova asked to see some outfits. Qiaodan sent clothes personalized with a logo they had crafted just for her, an adjacent S and K with butterfly wings coming out of each letter. In Chinese symbols, Qiaodan explained to her, a butterfly is the sign of comeback or rebirth.
“They send the outfit, and I think, ‘Wow, I never asked for a logo. It means they care,’” she said. “. . . I’m different than others, and I want my style of clothes to be different than others. They’re different.”
The clothes fit Kuznetsova, say fellow tour players such as Pavlyuchenkova, who calls her “honest, nice too. Just a nice person.”
The pair got a late start heading to Fed Cup practice one day in Moscow, and traffic looked certain to extend the drive across the city long beyond the 20 minutes they had to spare.
“Just relax,” Kuznetsova told Pavlyuchenkova. “Sit back and don’t look. We’ll be on time, don’t worry.”
Several speedy maneuvers around traffic (and traffic laws) later, they arrived “almost” on time.
Kuznetsova takes her own advice, relaxes and doesn’t look at the traffic ahead. It’s a unique approach among often high-strung, high-intensity Tour stars. But she will go into the Citi Open quarterfinals Friday as one of the winningest WTA players of the past decade.
“Some players are like more robotic, training [constantly],” she said. “I see myself on the court like an artist. I’m kind of drawing on a white sheet. . . . I like to be loose and an artist and create.”
With a serve that rarely breaks 90 mph and less power overall than some of the top-ranked players, the 5-foot-8 Kuznetsova has to create to win. She uses heavy topspin on her forehands, crafts perfectly placed winners with her two-hand backhand and covers the court with athleticism she’s still rebuilding after her injury.
Kuznetsova has a Twitter following to rival many of the game’s top stars, and her Instagram is peppered with pictures of her dog, Dolce, who frequently travels with her.
“If you don’t like my dog, don’t follow me,” she says seriously, as close as she ever likely will come to denouncing her detractors.
Asked whether she thinks another major is in her future — she seems to win one every five years, so she’s due at the U.S. Open — Kuznetsova shrugged and asked, “Why not?”
“I never thought I’d win one,” she said. “I just do my best, put my heart into it, and if it happens, that’s amazing.”