Quality at the top is at a low ebb

Svetlana Kuznetsova poses with the trophy in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.-PICS: AP

Svetlana Kuznetsova was certainly aided by the cold, slow conditions, with Dinara Safina straining for power and all too often over-hitting. After a nervous opening set by both women, Kuznetsova settled into a safety-first routine and allowed Safina to self-destruct. By Steve Bierley.

The excellence, strength and drama of the men’s game has thrown women’s tennis into a particularly harsh light and it has become too easy to be overly critical. However, there is little doubt that the quality at the top is at a low ebb and when Steffi Graf came on to present the trophies after Svetlana Kuznetsova had won the second all-Russian French Open final, 6-4, 6-2 against Dinara Safina, it was impossible not to feel an immediate yearning for the past.

There has not been a truly memorable women’s final at Roland Garros since Jennifer Capriati defeated Kim Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 in 2001. Perhaps the return of the Belgian at the U.S. Open will engender some sort of rejuvenation, though what the women’s game really needs is a player who can rise above and beyond the phalanx of baseline bashers.

In this respect, Kuznetsova deserved her victory for the greater variety she displayed, even though her palette is not exactly brimming with vibrant colour.

“I believed I could win, but in the end I was in a state of shock,” said the hugely likeable Kuznetsova, who became so down on herself last year that she came close to quitting. “I wanted to leave Spain and go back to Moscow, but people kept telling me it would be a mistake.”

It was a conversation with Roger Federer that helped her make up her mind to return to Russia. “He told me that I was the only one who could decide and not to listen to others.” She made the move and is now the French champion. Perfect.

It was impossible not to feel sorry for Safina, the sister of Marat Safin, who had so desperately wanted to win here and convince everybody that she was a genuine No. 1. She has had to field a succession of questions since she took over from Serena Williams in April, with the American stirring the pot by insisting she was still the best player in the world, holding the U.S. and Australian Open titles. After this dismally nervous performance by Safina, it was impossible not to agree with Serena.

The problem with the ranking system is that it rewards consistency rather than excellence. Thus Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic became the first end-of-year No. 1 in 2008 without having won a Slam either.

In the three Grand Slam finals, against Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and now Kuznetsova, she has won 16 games in total, and not one set. Hardly the stuff of someone purported to be the best player in the world. For Kuznetsova, who has never risen to No. 1, this was her second Slam victory. She won her first five years ago at the U.S. Open and has since lost two finals, here (2006) and in New York (2007). Given their previous wobbly records, the only certainty was that a Russian would win. Kuznetsova was certainly aided by the cold, slow conditions, with Safina straining for power and all too often over-hitting. After a nervous opening set by both women, Kuznetsova settled into a safety-first routine and allowed Safina to self-destruct.

“I beat myself. I have to learn to relax when I get to a Slam final and just play my normal game. It was a bad match for me, but there are so many matches in life. I will be fine tomorrow.” — Dinara Safina-

It had all begun so well for the younger of the two in this third all-Russian major final, the first two having come in 2004. Safina broke Kuznetsova’s serve, but instead of underlining the advantage she immediately dropped her own serve to love. The French crowd, many huddled in coats even though the morning rain had stopped by mid-afternoon, were subdued. Neither were they sure who to support.

The first all-Russian final had seen poor Elena Dementieva implode with a plethora of double faults against Anastasia Myskina, now working for television. Safina also has troubles with her serve (seven double faults), though it was the inaccuracy of her ground strokes, normally her great strength, that cost her dear.

That said, Kuznetsova defended superbly on occasions; her inside-out forehand was always a danger, suddenly switching play, while her backhand also held up well. Above all, she moved superbly.

A morose Safina, who had won 20 of her previous 21 matches since becoming No. 1, including the clay court titles in Rome and Madrid, had no excuses.

“I beat myself. I have to learn to relax when I get to a Slam final and just play my normal game. It was a bad match for me, but there are so many matches in life. I will be fine tomorrow.”

The match ended with a Safina double fault, always the worst of ways to lose.

“One day, she will make it here, but she plays under too much pressure,” said Kuznetsova. Perhaps she too needs to talk to Federer.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009