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Kuznetsova upsets Safina for French Open title

PARIS - Svetlana Kuznetsova never struck Dinara Safina as aGrand Slam champion in the making when they were kids in Russia.Kuznetsova showed up for matches toting a 2-liter bottle of sodaand wearing rock band T-shirts.

As of Saturday, Kuznetsova owns two major titles -- and that'stwo more than Safina.

Far steadier, if not all that spectacular, Kuznetsova tookadvantage of the No. 1-ranked Safina's assorted errors and won theFrench Open final 6-4, 6-2. Hardly a work of beauty, the 74-minutematch ended, fittingly, with Safina's seventh double-fault.

"She was too tight. She had so much pressure on her," saidKuznetsova, who also won the 2004 U.S. Open. "I just played thematch. It was just one more match. ... Definitely it was a lot ofemotions inside of me, but I control it."

Not at the outset: She lost the first three points and wasbroken in the first game. Quickly, though, the seventh-seededKuznetsova took control, yanking Safina from side to side with thesame powerful groundstrokes that eliminated Serena Williams in thequarterfinals.

More dispiriting to Safina, perhaps, was Kuznetsova's defense.

Time and time again, Safina -- sister of two-time major championMarat Safin -- delivered a hard, well-placed shot. And time and timeagain, Kuznetsova scrambled to get the ball over the net. If thechampion seems to have a cyclist's strong legs, it's because shedoes: Kuznetsova's father coached her mother to six worldchampionships and her brother to an Olympic silver medal in thatsport.

On a cloudy afternoon with the temperature in the low 50s,Kuznetsova also delighted spectators by showing off her soccerskills, juggling a tennis ball off her right foot and knee forseveral seconds. Her best work came with her racket, and she brokeback at love to make it 1-all, then again to go ahead 5-3. Safinabegan that eighth game with a double-fault and rolled her eyes. Asmistakes accumulated, she muttered to herself or smacked her leftpalm with her racket.

On match point, Safina's second serve hit the net tape andpopped up, sailing beyond the doubles alley.

"I was, like, 'Oh, my God. Double-fault,"' Kuznetsova said.

When Kuznetsova would allow herself to imagine winning theFrench Open, she always pictured herself dropping to the clay injoy. But the anticlimactic way this one ended didn't call for sucha celebration. Instead, Kuznetsova simply turned to make eyecontact with her coach and supporters in the stands, then walked tothe net for a handshake and kisses on the cheek.

At the other end of the court, Safina covered her forehead withher left hand -- disbelief written all over her face -- then spikedher racket.

"I was a little bit desperate on the court," said Safina, whoappeared to be fighting tears late in the match and during theon-court trophy presentation. "Didn't stay tough mentally."

Kuznetsova did, which hasn't always been the case. Aside fromher U.S. Open championship, also in an all-Russian final,Kuznetsova has her own history of faltering at key moments: Sheentered Saturday 10-18 in tournament finals.

The French Open, in particular, was the site of trouble. In2004, Kuznetsova held a match point in the fourth round beforelosing. The next year, in the same round, Kuznetsova led 5-3 in thethird set and held two match points before losing. And in 2007,Kuznetsova lost the final at Roland Garros to Justine Henin instraight sets.

Running through that list of setbacks, Kuznetsova noted onesignificant difference about Saturday.

"I was calm," she said. "It was similar feeling when I wonthe U.S. Open. I cannot explain it."

Her coach, Larisa Savchenko, surmised that maybe threedifficult, three-set matches before the final -- against No. 12Agnieszka Radwanska, then Williams, then No. 30 Samantha Stosur --helped settle down Kuznetsova.

"Really," Kuznetsova insisted after accepting the champion'strophy from six-time French Open winner Steffi Graf, "I didn'texpect it to happen this year."

Safina was the one who was supposed to finally make herbreakthrough after losing in the finals at last year's French Openand this year's Australian Open. Since rising to No. 1 in therankings in April, Safina had won 20 of 21 matches, including 16 ina row.

The only woman to beat her in that span? Kuznetsova.

There are those -- including Williams and Henin -- who havewondered whether Safina deserves to be No. 1 if she hasn't won amajor. Safina insisted the only pressure she felt came from within.

"I really wanted to win," she said. "I just didn't handleit."

About a decade ago, at age 12 or 13, Svetlana living in St.Petersburg, Dinara in Moscow, they first played each other. Dinarawon in a rout. Svetlana's highlight was asking her opponent's older-- and better-known -- brother, Marat, for an autograph.

Oh, how far Kuznetsova's come.

"Didn't happen just by luck," she said. "To have two GrandSlam trophies -- big, you know."


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