Former World No 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova continued her blistering run through the Western & Southern Open draw on Saturday by knocking off current World No 2 Ashleigh Barty, 6-2 6-4, to advance to the final in Cincinnati, effectively evaporating hopes of the Australian regaining the top seeding at the US Open.
Just playing smarter and wiser now. At 34 [years old] I should start, I think Svetlana Kuznetsova
Currently ranked 153, Kuznetsova has had a torrid time of late, battling injuries and visa issues, but the Russian is in a better place these days and is demonstrating the form that earned her two Grand Slam titles.
The 34-year old received a wildcard into the Cincinnati draw, after being unable to defend her Citi Open title in Washington because she had not received the US visa she applied for in February.
“It’s been so many different things when I was off, so I just enjoyed time off,” said Kuznetsova. “Honestly, I was not missing at all traveling and all the stress when you play tournaments, but now I have missed it and I feel good.
“I feel joy staying here and being here. Definitely helped me to have some time off to see other things out of tennis, because when you learn more you can bring more to your work, to your job.”
The Russian claimed her third Top 10 win in a row over No1 seed Barty, following a dominant third-round victory over Sloane Stephens and a quarter-final comeback win over Karolina Pliskova.
“I’m really happy,” Kuznetsova said, in her post-match press conference. “I’m not really an analysing person, but somehow, like, on my intuition, I’m doing so much better, not repeating so many of my mistakes.
“Just playing smarter and wiser now. At 34 [years old] I should start, I think,” the Russian smiled.
Barty, who needed the win to get back to No 1, was never really in match, so now the ailing Naomi Osaka will assume the top seed in New York next week.
In the first meeting between the two players, it was Kuznetsova who looked completely unperturbed after losing the first 2 games of the match, making a quick turnaround and emerging victorious after just 68 minutes of play.
Kuznetsova was superb on serve, never facing a break point in her final 8 service games, and winning two-thirds of her second-service points in total, while Barty did not get her typically stellar serve clicking until late in the encounter, and was undone by 27 unforced errors, more than twice her 13 winners.
“Ashleigh’s game is really different,” Kuznetsova stated. “It’s kind of the game I play, I think, more similar, and I just was trying to figure it out.
“I felt like I was kind of in control of the match because I’m moving well, bringing every ball back, playing very consistent,” Kuznetsova added.
“Definitely bringing more pressure to my opponent. I could read her game well and was really stable in my game. I thought it was the key.”
After an error-prone start, she quickly got herself back on track, slamming an overhead winner to break Barty for 2-1, and then taking advantage of the Australian’s inconsistencies to get ahead, 3-2.
Kuznetsova found the range on her powerful forehand as the set wore on, and earned her third break of the with a stunning forehand return winner on break point to go up 5-2.
Another winner off that wing at the end of a rally in the next game pulled the wildcard to double set point where Barty sent a forehand long on Kuznetsova’s first opportunity, and the Russian had won 6 games in a row.
Keeping her momentum rolling at the start of the second set, she broke Barty again in the opening game and consolidated, giving her an 8th straight game.
Barty finally stopped the streak by holding for 2-1, but the damage had been done, and the Australian would never get to break point in the set.
“I made the break, and, you know, when you feel like you’re in control of the match, you start to be worried not to relax, so I was trying to focus on my serve,” said Kuznetsova.
The World No 2 finally pulled out some more effective deliveries as the second set wore on, seeking a way back into the match and holding serve for the remainder of the encounter, but Kuznetsova was determined hold her lead and chased down everything Barty threw at her.
Kuznetsova eventually found her way to serve for the set, and she was nerveless as she raced to triple match point.
On the first, Barty sent a return out of court, and Kuznetsova had notched another impressive win as her form continues to crest during the North American hardcourt swing.
The Russian, who won the 2004 US Open and 2009 Roland Garros, was into her first final in just over a year and faces American Madison Keys in Sunday’s championship match.
“Madison is extremely tough,” admitted Kuznetsova, who is going for her 19th career title. “When she’s on fire, it’s really hard to play against her. It’s going to be a difficult matchup.
“Well, sometimes in life it’s like this. It’s like really small things change everything. Definitely it’s different momentum I have now.
“I feel really good. Every day I’m kind of waking up, hoping that everything still feels like it’s in one piece and it feels really good.”
Keys won an all-American tussle with Sofia Kenin, 7-5 6-4, after a tough first set with the 20-year old, who then led by a break, 3-1, in the second.
With the odds looking for a third, Keys came back to overpower the youngster to reach her 9th final.
“I think in the second set she started returning really well and taking things really early,” said Keys. “Seemed like she was really seeing it.
“I kind of just had to really focus in on my return games and put the same amount of pressure on her.”
Keys, the No 16 seed, has reached her second final of the season in Cincy, brushing off losing a 5-2 lead in the first set, as Kenin saved a set point and won 3 games in a row to level at 5-5, but she bounced back to win the last 2 games to steal the set before a tiebreak.
She found herself a break down twice in the second, but rallied to win the last 3 games to seal victory in an hour and 22 minutes.
“I think at the end I really kind of found my groove and figured out how I wanted to play the points,” Keys said after the match.
The older American hit 14 aces to just 4 double faults over the course of the match, and won 82 percent of the points when she landed her first serve.
In fact, Keys hit nearly twice as many winners as unforced errors in the victory, recording 41 winners to just 21 unforced to reverse the result of their second round meeting on the clay courts of Rome this spring, where Kenin rallied from a set down to win in three sets.
“I think I played pretty well overall,” Kenin said. “Maddie just played really well, you know.
“She served big in important moments and got lucky on a few stuff, but obviously she played really well. Just credit to her.
“I’m really proud of myself. Getting to the semis in Toronto was really good, and playing a second week and getting into semi-finals [here] is just really good.
“I’m really happy. Playing really well, having great weeks. This is exactly what I need coming for New York.”
On facing Kuznetsova, Keys said: “She’s obviously been playing well. I haven’t gotten to see a ton of what she is doing this tournament, but in order for her to be in this position, she’s obviously playing some really good tennis.
“I think she’s an interesting person to play because she’s not the norm on the tour.
“You know, she plays with a little bit more spin. She likes to slice. She has a lot of variety. I’m definitely going to have to watch for that tomorrow.”
Keys, who seeks to win her second title of the season, joining the Volvo Car Open trophy that she won in Charleston in April, leads the Russian 3-1, having won the last three encounters, but the two have not played since 2016.
As for Barty, her 7-week run atop the field ended when Osaka edged ahead of her in the latest ranking.
A victory on Saturday would have moved the amiable Aussie back ahead for the US Open but, instead, she dropped the opening set for the third straight match and this time, there was no digging herself out.
“A week that we battled through,” Barty admitted. “I think at times I played some good stuff. At times, I played some pretty awful stuff.”
Which will it be for Barty at the Open? And will Osaka be in good enough shape to defend her title?
Osaka dropped out of her semi-final match Friday with discomfort in her left knee that caused her worry.
She still plans to play in New York, but it’s unclear whether the knee will be a problem.