Coming in at #3 on the WTA Top 5 Comebacks of the Year would be two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova’s fantastic comeback victory against the talented Donna Vekic in the final of the 2018 Citi Open. Coming from match points down to triumph is never easy — but recovering from four match points down to prevail is certainly another level of difficulty considering the amount of pressure weighed on your shoulders.
It was a high-quality match featuring many impressive shots by both players, and ultimately it was the Russian who proved that experience matters as she surged towards her 18th career WTA title.
It was Vekic who took a rollercoaster opening set 6-4 before owning four match points in a terrific second set which saw Kuznetsova fight back from the brink and earn herself a narrow lifeline which she grabbed onto. The final set saw the Russian roll on her momentum and storm towards her maiden title of the year, pushing herself back into the top-100 in the rankings after a series of unfortunate injuries which sidelined her for six months.
After two hours and 31-minutes played, the Russian veteran fired 34 winners to 36 unforced errors and claimed the more important points as she sealed the victory over Vekic, who was the aggressor out on the court. The Croatian youngster blasted 40 winners, but her aggressive game backfired on multiple occasions, particularly in the deciding set where fatigue slowed down her progress as she misfired 48 times.
Vekic earns the tight first set
The match started with some quality hitting from both players. Both Vekic and Kuznetsova came into the final looking in their best form, with the youngster storming into the final with the momentum running in her while the veteran lost not more than four games in any match en route.
The norm seemed to be comfortable service holds but Vekic was the first to a breakthrough in the match. Kuznetsova was on course to level the score at 2-2, but Vekic produced a terrific dropshot alongside a stunning volley winner, paving the way for her to break serve off a Kuznetsova forehand error.
A series of unforced errors on the forehand wing from Vekic then provided the Russian with the golden opportunity to break straight back but Vekic made redemptions with some clean tennis, firing an unreturnable serve to consolidate the break for a commanding 4-1 lead.
Kuznetsova started to completely lose the plot as she failed to take the initiative and played extremely passively — something that would haunt her in the first half of the match against the aggressive Vekic. Two untimely forehand errors from Vekic proved costly as Kuznetsova came back from the brink to hold serve.
Just when Vekic was serving for the set at 5-3 up, the nerves kicked in and Kuznetsova pounced on her chances. An unfortunate double-fault exhibited the youngster’s nerves as Vekic was broken back at the eleventh hour, throwing the set wide open again.
However, Vekic stepped up her game and although Kuznetsova had all the momentum running in her, all the Croatian needed was a fantastic forehand passing winner at 30-0 down to grab back the confidence she lost. She found some incredible returns and Kuznetsova returned the favour by sending a routine drive volley long on set point, gifting Vekic the first set 6-4 after a exciting 50 minutes of play.
Kuznetsova fights back from the brink
The second set was of a completely different storyline as compared to the first. Both players were extraordinarily efficient on their serves, with only three break points surfacing throughout the entire set but none was converted.
Surprisingly, it was Kuznetsova who earned the first chance to break serve in the seventh game. Consecutive forehand errors put Vekic in danger once more — almost costing her a 40-0 lead on serve as she was forced to save a break point, ironically with a perfect forehand winner.
While serving to stay in the match at 4-5 down, Kuznetsova certainly felt the pressure weighing on her shoulders — it is a situation where you either go all out and win it or take a step back and be overwhelmed by the occasion. The Russian has always been known as a player who collapses during the nervy moments, but some aggressive and calm play saw her saving two match points to escape with the tense hold.
The set was eventually brought into a tiebreak, where Kuznetsova lost a 5-3 lead only to see Vekic earning yet another match point at 6-5 up. However, a huge and risky forehand return winner from the world number 128 saved her from the brink once more. Vekic just could not close out the win as her fourth match point came and went — this time with Kuznetsova on the defence throughout the point but just when Vekic pulled the trigger, the forehand went long.
Ultimately, it was the more experienced Kuznetsova who had more left in the tank, grabbing the second set 7-6 with some help from Vekic’s unforced errors. It was a marathon second set with a thrilling ending, and after one hour it was the Russian who came out of nowhere to fight back for a deciding set.
Kuznetsova seals her second Citi Open title
A confident service hold from Kuznetsova started the third and deciding set, although the intensity from both players had dropped after a high-quality second set. A tired-looking Vekic could not get her legs going, and her fitness level experienced a dip as she fired four unforced errors to get broken. Kuznetsova, despite her age of 33, was the fresher one on the court and strolled to consolidate the break for a commanding 3-0 lead within a blink of an eye.
Occasional mix of dropshots from Kuznetsova was smart considering how fatigued Vekic was, and she did not have to do much as the Croatian was handing out free points with a slew of errors leaking from her game. The 33-year-old soon built up a huge 5-0 lead having saved multiple break points in the fifth game before closing it out with an ace.
An improbable comeback was on the cards when Kuznetsova started to tense up as she attempted to cross the finishing line. Vekic impressively retrieved one of the breaks back despite being down-and-out, and eventually, it was the Russian who proved too strong as Vekic sent yet another forehand wide.
Reaction from both players after the thrilling encounter
Having been sidelined due to injury for six months, Kuznetsova’s story can come as a motivational and inspirational one. This title definitely provided the Russian veteran with confidence after a potentially threatening wrist injury, and she mentioned about it during her post-match press conference, “After surgery I had difficulties everywhere — personal, working differences in tennis, I switched coaches, I had lots of issues and I have just been working on things but still I rise again and it’s good for me it’s very important and even the final already was great but of course the trophy is like the cherry on the cake probably.”
It was relatively obvious that Vekic lost steam in the final set where she produced countless unforced errors. Responding to a question about her mentality when she lost the second set and was forced into a decider, she responded, “I think I could have definitely dealt [with the pressure] a little better, but she definitely really picked up her level, especially at the beginning of the third set and I was struggling physically and mentally. It was not easy, you know, especially when we have already played two hours when it was the end of the second set, so it was tough but I mean, she kept fighting and she played very well.”
However, even at the age of 33 and lingering outside the top-100, Kuznetsova never once had a doubt that she would not return to the top. “No, I am sure that I can do it, I’ve done it many times coming back but sometimes I’ve felt low in motivation because you work, work, work and you don’t succeed, and you work, work, work and you still have pain.”