Reporting from Carlsbad, Calif. — It was early in October 2009 when Svetlana Kuznetsova last won a WTA tournament. On a hard court in Beijing, Kuznetsova defeated Agnieszka Radwanska for the China Open title on Oct. 3.
Ten months later, Kuznetsova and Radwanska are in a final for the first time since Beijing, at the Mercury Insurance Open in Carlsbad.
The unseeded Kuznetsova, of Russia, defeated No. 5-seeded Flavia Pennetta of Italy, 6-4, 6-0, and No. 4-seeded Radwanska, of Poland, topped Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, 6-4, 6-2, in Saturday's semifinals.
"I played better, yes," Kuznetsova said. "But I'm very far from where I want to be."
Hantuchova fought off seven match points in a 20-minute game at 2-5 in the second set before Radwanska took her down in the next game.
"She's a big fighter, and she fought to the last point," Radwanska said.
Beijing capped a successful year for Kuznetsova, who won the 2009 French Open and finished the year ranked No. 3 in the world.
But 2010 has not been as kind. Kuznetsova is now ranked No. 21, though she says leaving the top 20 has been the least of her worries.
"I played bad, but for me the matter of being No. 18 or 22, it's not a big deal," the 2004 U.S. Open champion said. "My friends, some of them who are very impatient, go, 'You're No. 21, you have to do something!' And I say, 'I know, I'm working on it.'"
She said many people were asking, "Where's your game?" She went looking for it in an unlikely place, at the Vesna Hotel in Sochi, Russia — site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. There, she and her trainer worked long hours to build the foundation for a return to form.
"We were just playing, playing, playing, and trying to get my game together," Kuznetsova said.
The work has paid off for Kuznetsova, who defeated four very different opponents to reach the final.
Radwanska, too, had to fight to make it through the tournament, and said she is content with the appearance in the title match.
"I'm just very happy that we can play a final again," Radwanska said. ". . . I've got nothing to lose."
But Kuznetsova wants to return to her former glory, and said Sunday's final might not get her there.
"It's already good that I made the final, but it's not enough. Even winning the trophy is not going to be enough," she said. "But still it's going to be one big step forward. I want to get my game better. Even better than it was before. I'm looking forward to playing tomorrow better than today, and today better than yesterday."