By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, March 19, 2017
Elena Vesnina reeled off four straight games completing a 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4 conquest of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the BNP Paribas Open final to capture the biggest singles title of her career.
Photo credit: Michael Cummo/ BNP Paribas Open
The final shot sailed past the baseline and Elena Vesnina crumpled to the court in exhilaration.
On this day, only championship point could floor Vesnina.
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In an all-Russian final, Vesnina stared down scalding heat, an experienced Svetlana Kuznetsova, a 1-4 second-set deficit and a 2-4 hole in the third and never once blinked.
Playing with passion and a defiant “hi-ya” double grunt a resilient Vesnina reeled off four straight games scoring a 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4 conquest of Kuznetsova in the BNP Paribas Open final to capture the biggest singles title of her career.
The 30-year-old Vesnina withstood a fierce three-hour fight with her good friend earning her third career singles title, including her first Premier Mandatory crown, and the champion’s check of $1.175 million.
“I cannot believe it, to be honest, to win such a big title against such a great player like Svetlana,” Vesnina told ESPN’s Pam Shriver afterward. “I was down a set and 4-1 it seemed like it was so far away this title. And now I won it. I’m just so, so happy.”
A year ago, Vesnina was ranked No. 86 when she fell in the Indian Wells qualifying.
A year later, she completed a dream week in which she vanquished world No. 2 Angelique Kerber, Australian Open finalist Venus Williams, St. Peterburg champion Kristina Mladenovic and Kuznetsova in an inspired run that will spike her ranking to a career-high No. 13 tomorrow.
"Tennis is awesome, I can say," Vesnina said. "That's what we have, you know. I think that my example is the good kind of self-belief, like, good kind of vibe for all players, you know. All other girls, you know, on the tour who think, Oh, my God, this is the end of the world, end of my career, I lost first round of quallies, what can be worse than that? You can regroup and get back.
"You can just play the best sport you have, what you're doing for all your life. You know, you gave so much to tennis. I gave so much to tennis."
Contesting her first career WTA Premier Mandatory event, Vesnina showed no nerves cracking a forehand return winner down the line to break for 2-0.
The eighth-ranked Kuznetsova broke right back then cruised through a confident hold to level.
The first Indian Wells final between thirtysomethings saw the Olympic teammates trade breaks in the sixth and seventh games.
Vesnina made a determined stand saving a pair of break points in the ninth game. Kuznetsova cracked a backhand down the line for a third break point only to see Vesnina answer with a backhand down the line strike of her own. Navigating a demanding game, Vesnina saved three break points holding for 5-4.
In the 10th game, Kuznetsova saved a set point when Vesnina wacked a forehand wide.
On-court temperatures soared to 93 degrees and tension intensified in the tie break. A sharp-angled backhand crosscourt gave Kuznetsova two set points at 6-4.
The two-time Grand Slam champion tightened up double-faulting on the first and looping a forehand long on the second. When Vesnina netted a flat backhand, Kuznetsova had a third set point.
Seventy-two minutes of suspense ended with a twist of the tape.
Defending behind the baseline, Kuznetsova struck a backhand off her back foot that crashed into the tape and dribbled over. The net-cord winner gave Kuznetsova a sweat-soaked one-set lead.
The physical and emotional strain of the draining first set took a toll on Vesnina in the second. Kuznetsova reeled off eight of the first nine points building a 2-0 lead.
Throughout the match, the three-time finalist answered adversity with proactive play. When Vesnina broke at love, Kuznetsova came right back with an athletic dig down the line breaking back for 3-1.
Shrugging off a double fault, Kuznetsova clobbered an ace down the middle for 4-1.
At that point, she was two holds from the title. Vesnina wasn’t done.
"I didn't feel good today, because she was very aggressive, and I was a little bit out of my game," Kuznetsova said. "I was too far from the court, and I was running all the way, way behind, so the only thing I could defend. And I didn't serve well. So I think that was overall the key points.
"Even I made it 7-6, 4-1 and was one break, and she kept being aggressive, and, yeah, I was too passive. I think that's why I lost."
The Olympic gold medal doubles champion found a second win and increased depth reeling off six of the next seven games. Vesnina exploited an errant backhand breaking for 6-5.
A gorgeous drop shot and backhand pass down the line gave the 30-year-old from Sochi set point. Vesnina zapped an ace off the line to level the match after two hours, 12 minutes.
They traded breaks to start the decider. Pacing methodically between points, Kuznetsova cranked her ninth ace down the T holding for 3-2 after two hours, 35 minutes of play.
The pair exchange breaks again in the sixth and seventh games.
The high sun and shaky second serve cost Kuznetsova who coughed up her eighth double fault to face two break points. Kuznetsova saved both then denied a third. On a fourth break point, Kuznetsova flagged a forehand off the tape for another let-cord winner.
"She was serving slices, topspin, flat, all the time changing, all the time moving me around," Vesnina said. "So it was really physical match today, as well. In the end of the match, to be honest, I felt tired. I was, like, come on, don't think that you're tired. Maybe this is the only chance you can get in your life, you know, and you're thinking that you're tired? Just forget about that. Just fight and don't think about tiredness and about anything right now. Just play."
Commitment to the cause helped her close on a four-game run.
The eighth seed’s luck ran out as Vesnina stepped into the court and ripped a return down the line breaking for 5-4. Vesnina won nine of 11 points played on Kuznetsova’s second serve in the deciding set.
Summoning one final burst, Vesnina scraped an inside-out forehand for double championship point.
When Kuznetsova’s backhand return sailed long, Vesnina dropped to her knees in joy. The two-time Grand Slam doubles champion shined in the singles spotlight.