After reaching the finals of the Miami Open in April, Svetlana Kuznetsova was considering how to construct her clay season — the surface she feels most comfortable on and that has yielded some of her best results. A couple of weeks later, the Russian veteran is in the quarterfinals of the Internazional BNL d'Italia, where she'll have a rematch with Serena Williams, the player she beat en route to the finals in Miami. René Denfeld talked to the 30-year-old from St. Petersburg throughout the week about all things tennis, her clothing sponsor Qiaodan and clay expertise.
"I've been around quite a long time so I feel comfortable on either, so I played good at doubles as well, you know it happens," Kuznetsova said earlier this week when we sat down in one of the comfortable couches on Monday after the Russian had played singles and doubles in one day — coming away with the win in singles, but a narrow defeat alongside compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova against the Romanian duo of Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu.
Kuznetsova's singles campaign here in Rome has been going well ever since she started with a tight straight-set win over France's Carolina Garcia.
"It was a really tough first round, especially since I had a tough match in Miami against her and beat her 7-6 in the third set and I'm really happy I managed to do it in two sets in Rome," the 2009 French Open champion said.
Kuznetsova had to withdraw from the Prague semifinals two weeks ago due to abdominal issues, but felt her tennis was there — the turnaround to the Madrid altitude, however, came too quick.
"I feel great. The thing was like I pulled out, I was scared for my abdominal muscle. I was much better for my match in Madrid, but I didn't have any time to get used to the altitude and I was just playing ridiculously bad, that's why I was really upset. It was not an easy first round, but had I played my normal game, I think I could have finished it."
The two-time Grand Slam champion said she'd love to do a little more off-court activities and sights at tournaments, but it's work first, fun later — and for the latter she's often too tired to fully enjoy it.
"I try to hit as much as possible to get used to the courts, because it takes me awhile, so that's what I'm focused on — because in Madrid I like to visit the Prado, here I would like to go to Vatican, but I didn't have so much time. Last couple of years I tried to focus on doing some sightseeing, but still I get so tired, like I got to Prado and in like one hour — I was really so, so sore, I wanted them to bring me a wheelchair, so you know, I could stay longer in Prado," Kuznetsova laughed.
For the past couple of years the Russian has been wearing kits by Qiaodan — a Chinese sports clothing brand — and she enjoys the exclusivity she has with them, getting a lot of personalized items such as T-shirts with her dog "Dolce" at the front.
— Christopher Levy (@tennis_shots) July 28, 2014
"They do amazing stuff, I'm just now looking with them for a collection for the US Open and for the Olympics," the 30-year-old explained about her clothing sponsor. "It's a bit difficult to communicate, but the rest I'm really happy with, because I'm the only one who wears that. I like to be different from others and whatever I ask them, they listen to me, that's very important, the respect we have. I appreciate them having me."
As one of veterans on tour, the world number 19 is one of few players who can really manipulate the clay court and vary between flattening her shots and adding significant amounts of topspin to her serve and groundstrokes — something that really works in her favour on the red dirt, where the ball kicks off an extra notch after bouncing. The Russian has seen the tour undergo quite a number of changes in playing styles across the board over the course of the past decade — impacting how the game is played on clay in 2016, as opposed to 2006.
"It's a little bit hard to compare, but I think now the tennis overall got so much faster," Kuznetsova said. "Most of the players, they hit the ball as hard as they can and not many players do a slow game and variation and when it gets to clay they're like 'oh!' — they're still hitting the ball, y'know. I mean, everybody is different, but I believe that before tennis was much slower and people had to create more and it looked much better on clay, now it looks a little weird – people hit on it like it's hard courts!"
Later today, the Russian will try to outfox Serena Williams on Rome's Campo Centrale for the second time in a row — and although the match will be played on her favorite turf, Kuznetsova is aware that it wouldn't be Serena Williams if she wasn't going to come out all guns blazing.
"I mean, Serena will be favorite, anyway, so that's cool," Kuznetsova smiled. "Yeah, I mean, I won in Miami, but doesn't matter, you know. Serena is No.1. She's playing great on any surface. And it is just gonna be another great match, great opportunity for me to play and enjoy my game, and I'm looking forward to it."
Another thing Kuznetsova will be looking forward to is seeing her pitbull in between Rome and the French Open.
"I miss Dolce so much! He's doing great, he was celebrating the victory day on Sunday in Moscow, it was a huge parade!"
But it might be a very short stay back home for Kuznetsova in St. Petersburg, particularly if her form in Rome continues to stay the way it was during the past few days.
"I know where I am at. I feel great on clay. I'm doing better. (..) It's great to play top player on clay before French. It's amazing and it will be an amazing match. And I know Serena will go for her best (..). Doesn't surprise me, you know," the world No.19 laughed.
"I just want to enjoy every match. That was my goal for the year, and I don't care about anything else."