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U.S. Open Is History for Kuznetsova

First Russian women's champ beats countrywoman Dementieva, then both honor victims of terrorism.

September 12, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — While she's still wearing braces, Svetlana Kuznetsova possesses a tennis game of massive power and mature shot making and now she is a champion.

Kuznetsova, 19, became the first Russian woman to win the U.S. Open on Saturday, an inevitable occurrence since her opponent, Elena Dementieva, was Russian too.

In control all the way, dictating points with her forehand, ninth-seeded Kuznetsova left sixth-seeded Dementieva without energy to fight by the end of the 6-3, 7-5 win.

If these two unlikely finalists -- each had taken out a higher-seeded American in the semifinals -- didn't win over the 20,524 Arthur Ashe Stadium fans with tennis that was more often sloppy than fabulous, they won them over after the 1-hour 14-minute match with their words.

On Sept. 11, 2004, three years after the World Trade Center tragedy, Kuznetsova came to the court wearing a baseball cap with "FDNY" lettered on the front, a tribute to the New York firefighters. And Dementieva walked behind Kuznetsova in a cap with "NYPD" on the front to honor New York City police.

And after the final point, a wallop of a second serve winner by Kuznetsova, Dementieva brought stillness to the night when she said: "It's a great day to be a tennis player but also a day to remember. On Sept. 11 you guys lost hundreds of people. On Sept. 1, 2004, we lost hundreds of children in Russia. I want you guys to do everything possible, stay together to battle terrorism. Let's have a moment of silence one more time." Dementieva was referring to the terrorist attack on a Russian school last week.

Before Kuznetsova accepted her winner's check of $1 million, she also made a tribute. "I'm so happy today," she said, "but it seems so little against terrorism. I hope we can be together, hope it never happens again. I want to dedicate this trophy to those who died in Sept. 11 and who died in Russia."

Kuznetsova is the third Russian woman to win a major title this year -- 23-year-old Anastasia Myskina beat Dementieva in the French Open final and 17-year-old Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon -- and five Russians are ranked in the top 10.

"We Russians, we want to fight hard for every point," said Dementieva, who was slowed by a pulled left thigh muscle. "I don't know why but we do."

Kuznetsova even went out to practice with her Spanish coach, Sergio Casal, for 15 minutes after she had hoisted the winner's trophy. It is her usual routine, a way, she said, to get rid of her tension and her extra energy.

The only moment in which Kuznetsova showed nerves was in the first game. Dementieva had won the coin toss and elected to receive, a move not unexpected because she is plagued with a powerless serve that didn't register faster than 78 miles per hour in her first two games, and she broke Kuznetsova at love.

"I was thinking, 'Wow, what should I do here today? What am I doing here? There are so many people,' " Kuznetsova said.

But Kuznetsova quickly began hammering back, slapping winners in both corners -- 34 to only seven for Dementieva -- and hitting her thigh between games.

Her father, Alexandr Kuznetsov, is a cycling coach. Her mother, Galina Tsareva, was a six-time world champion cyclist. Her brother, Nikolai Kuznetsov, won a cycling silver medal at the 1996 Olympics. But Kuznetsova said cycling bored her, and when she was 15, her family sent Kuznetsova to Spain for better tennis training and coaching.

But training, coaching, and the forehand Casal said "can hurt people" and the confidence that he said has been growing for the last three months still couldn't calm Kuznetsova's nerves.

"I was talking to everybody," Kuznetsova said, including Martina Navratilova, who stopped by about two minutes before the match to offer encouragement.

"Martina told me, 'Remember, I did it when it was my first final, I won my first final. You can do it too.' That helped me a lot," Kuznetsova said. Luckily Kuznetsova didn't remember that Navratilova didn't win the Open until her second trip to the final.

A year ago she was Navratilova's doubles partner and they made it to the U.S. Open finals as a team. Now she is the singles champion.

"This is even better," Kuznetsova said. "Much better."

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