Kuznetsova's Nasdaq win powers her into top 10

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- She came into the Nasdaq-100 Open as the fifth-best player in her own country -- on paper. By knocking off the highest-visibility and highest-ranked of her fellow Russians in the final, Svetlana Kuznetsova propelled herself into the top 10 on the women's tour and clearly won the popularity contest as well.

Kuznetsova earned her first major title since the 2004 U.S. Open Saturday by outsmacking No. 4 Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3. En route to that match, she defeated current No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo of France in the semifinals and saved two match points in the third round against Martina Hingis, the rejuvenated former No. 1.

The victory capped Kuznetsova's return to form after a physically shaky second half of 2005 and signaled her renewed self-assurance and will. After the match ended, she sank to her knees and pointed to the stands. A few minutes later, she grabbed a marker and playfully scrawled "From Russia, with love" on the lens of a television camera.

A noticeable lack of affection trailed Sharapova in this tournament. She seemed burdened by mediocre play, an ill-fitting new outfit, a suspiciously weak bladder and, in the semifinals, a seemingly cold attitude toward opponent Tatiana Golovin of France, who was injured in mid-rally.

Reporters asked Kuznetsova to comment on her crowd support versus Sharapova's, but she wouldn't be dragged down that path. "I don't want to get into that," she said with a knowing smile. "I guess I played a good match against Martina and I played very good strokes against Amelie."

Kuznetsova admitted she had "heard a lot" about the Sharapova-Golovin match, where Golovin mounted a gallant comeback from 5-1 down in the second set to force a third, but rolled her ankle and tore ligaments chasing down a ball and had to retire.

Sharapova jogged in place and bounced a ball around at her end of the court during a lengthy stoppage in play while a trainer attended to Golovin. She did not walk to the net or otherwise inquire about Golovin's condition -- an omission the crowd and some commentators interpreted as either a breach of etiquette or a lack of basic compassion or both.

Bathroom breaks at key points of two different matches also shaved a few percentage points off Sharapova's crowd ratings. She was booed when she returned to the court after taking one late in the Golovin match.

Sharapova, who is 21-4 this season and has appeared in three straight WTA finals, shrugged off a question about the negative vibes Saturday, saying she wasn't paying attention.

She had four forehand winners for the entire match to Kuznetsova's 13, but resisted analysis in that area as well. "I don't know what went wrong," she said in clipped tones. "What did go wrong?"

After another verbal prod, she elaborated. "She probably forced the errors," Sharapova said. "She made me go for bigger shots."

Kuznetsova went up 5-2 in Saturday's first set, most of which was accompanied by the distracting drone of a biplane flying overhead with an advertisement for a local soccer team in tow.

Fans began to voice their disapproval late in the set, and one man hollered a personal message to tournament founder Butch Buchholtz: "Butch, get rid of the plane."

Sharapova, whose routine exclamations on shots also added to the decibel level, scrapped her way back into the match by holding serve on a game that went to five deuces and breaking Kuznetsova in the next game to creep to within 5-4.

Kuznetsova, relying on her crackling forehand, closed out the set by breaking back and never looked threatened again, whacking a 109-mph ace on match point.

That emphatic finish was sweet relief for Kuznetsova, who had match points in the round of 16 at the 2004 and 2005 editions of the French Open, but lost both to eventual winners Anastasia Myskina and Justine Henin-Hardenne. She hit another low in the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open, when she tumbled to the 97th-ranked player in the world.

In this tournament, "The match against Hingis, it was the key for me," Kuznetsova said. "I was watching the DVD, and I had this volley which I usually would miss, and I didn't do that.

"I put in lots of work in December. I was on the courts day and night. I was just working with psychologists, I was working on myself, with many doctors, with people. I was just playing my matches and I see if I play the right game, I can make it. I'm just very excited about that."

Kuznetsova, the daughter of a prominent Russian cycling coach, now has six singles and 12 doubles titles. She is 16-4 this season and will move up from No. 14 to No. 10 next week.