From Carlsbad, Calif. — The final match in the Mercury Insurance Open at La Costa on Sunday provided a snapshot of the current state of women's professional tennis. There was the good, the bad and the ugly.
But in the end, the main participant in all that, Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, made it all better.
First, she won, which made amends for a horrible second set. Second, she fessed up about what really happened in that second set. She even used the C-word, an untouchable for athletes.
"I choked," she said. "I never did that before. I've won two Slams, and I never choked like that before."
She fessed up with charm and candor. That will get you everywhere in sports, where there seems to be so little of that. That's especially true in women's tennis, where the stars, Venus and Serena Williams, have yet to lose a match to anything other than injury or misfortune. At least that's what comes across from them after their rare losses.
Maybe you need to surround yourself with that kind of shield of denial to be as spectacularly successful as Venus and Serena have been. Kuznetsova obviously didn't think so.
Part of the good of the day was that tennis was back in San Diego, and at La Costa, after a two-year absence. It is a lower-tier tournament with a $700,000 purse. The stadium seats 5,500 and is comfortable and cozy, a nice place to go and watch. It was mostly filled Sunday while palm trees swayed in the gentle breeze on a perfect day, the kind that both players and spectators not only love, but expect here.
Women's tennis can be a hard sell these days. The public often judges an event as follows: No Venus, no Serena, no ticket purchase.
Some sports editors look at these tournaments and balk, seeing the absence of the Williams sisters and fearing that their reporters won't be able to spell the names of half the others. On one of the late-night newscasts in San Diego on Saturday, the sportscaster made it through his report on Sunday's final, saying it would match Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Radwanska. For his effort, he was heartily congratulated by fellow broadcasters for his pronunciation performance.
That's the way the public sees things: It is currently a sport of Venus and Serena and many tall Russians and Eastern Europeans whose names end in "ova." Sunday's final might just have well been promoted as Russia (Kuznetsova) versus Poland (Radwanska). That, of course, is a hard sell for ticket-buyers, sports editors and the 3 minutes 30 seconds the TV sports guy has for his entire report.
Kuznetsova's three-set victory provided a nice little window into this world.
The Russian, who has won two major titles, the 2004 U.S. Open and the 2009 French, served for the match at 5-4 of the second set and lost. Then she took a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker and squandered most of that. Next, at 6-3 of the tiebreaker, she hit a second serve that was 63 mph — your 10-year-old can hit it that fast — and dumped it feebly into the net.
After Radwanska had floated her own second serve, a 64-mph choke job, into the net to give Kuznetsova her fourth match point at 7-6 of the tiebreaker, the Russian returned the favor with yet another double fault. Eventually, Radwanska accepted what was being handed her on a silver platter and won the set.
"I am 25 years old, and I've been playing tennis since I was 7," Kuznetsova said. "For 18 years I do it, and now I can't hit the ball into that little box.
"It was very unforgettable. If I lost, it would have stayed in my head."
She said she learned.
"I didn't let myself kill myself."
She said it might have been career-threatening.
"If I lose that third set, maybe I think I should quit playing tennis."
All the time she smiled, laughed at herself, talked about her knees shaking, about her heated discussion with herself in the locker room before she came out and dominated in the third set.
"I'm going to keep what happened in the locker room to myself," she said, laughing again.
They won't be broadcasting this one on ESPN Classic. It will be no more than a paragraph in most nonlocal newspapers. There was some good tennis — 76 winners hit by the two, 51 by Kuznetsova. And some bad — 82 errors total, 44 by Kuznetsova.
But in the end, the fans got a lot of tennis, and they always love that. And the tennis purists, certainly horrified by the second set, got to see the real Kuznetsova in the third.
Even better, the WTA Tour got some nice candor and refreshing personality, both badly needed.