The first all-Russian BNP Paribas Open final since 2006 sees the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova aiming to overpower compatriot Elena Vesnina for the Indian Wells title.
An unexpected all-Russian clash will see Svetlana Kuznetsova, nine years after her last appearance in the BNP Paribas Open final, facing Elena Vesnina for one of the biggest titles of the year at Indian Wells on Sunday.
The WTA’s nomenclature can be a little confusing, but even if you don’t know exactly what ‘Premier Mandatory’ means, you know enough to recognize that the four events of the season designated thus – the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, the Miami Open, the Mutua Madrid Open and the China Open in Beijing – are the biggest titles on offer outside the four Grand Slams and the WTA Finals Singapore.
For Elena Vesnina, Sunday will therefore mark the biggest final of her singles career. The Russian veteran, now 30, was a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2016, but she has won only two WTA singles titles, both in 2013 – the International-level Hobart crown, and the Premier-level Eastbourne title. Of her seven WTA runner-up finishes, three of the seven – New Haven in 2009 and Charleston in 2011 and 2016 – came at Premier-level events.
It’s quite a step up from there to the Indian Wells final, and it really came out of nowhere for Vesnina. In nine previous appearances, Vesnina had only won back-to-back matches once, and 12 months ago, she lost in the very first round of qualifying, having dropped well outside the top 150 (a decline she would arrest in stunning style with her Charleston runner-up finish and Wimbledon semifinal run finishing the season inside the top 20). And there was little indication that she was in any kind of real form on the singles court so far in 2017: She lost in the first round of her first two events of the year and fell to 116-ranked qualifier Jennifer Brady in the third round of the Australian Open, going on to lose to Dominika Cibulkova in the St Petersburg quarterfinals, and Lauren Davis and Ana Konjuh in Doha and Dubai.
After an opening win over Shelby Rogers, however, Vesnina has got through four fellow seeds to make the final, and she’s done it by playing extremely well. She beat 25th seed Timea Babos, second seed Angelique Kerber, 12th seed Venus Williams and finally 28th seed Kristina Mladenovic – the St Petersburg champion who had been so impressive in a comeback win against Caroline Wozniacki in the previous round – in the semifinals, ending the Frenchwoman’s run 6-3, 6-4, racing to a 5-0 lead against a somewhat flat Mladenovic and recovering from dropping serve when serving for the match.
‘[I had] all this kind of positive thinking and experience, as well. I was serving a lot of times for the match in doubles, for the finals, Grand Slam finals, championship finals, Olympic Games finals. So I kind of had this kind of pressure,’ Vesnina said.
Vesnina has indeed had an exceptional doubles career – she is a two-time women’s doubles Grand Slam champion as well as an Olympic gold medalist, and has made six Grand Slam finals in women’s doubles besides, and no doubt that experience was a huge factor in some of her bigger results on the singles court in recent years.
When it comes to experience, though, the ball is definitely in Svetlana Kuznetsova’s court when it comes to Sunday’s final. Kuznetsova and Vesnina are compatriots with just one year separating them in age – Kuznetsova is the older at 31 – but Kuznetsova has 17 WTA singles titles to Vesnina’s two, including Grand Slam titles at the US Open in 2004 and Roland Garros in 2009, three Premier Mandatory titles (two in Beijing and one in Miami) and 22 runner-up finishes including two at Grand Slams (Roland Garros in 2006 and the US Open in 2007) and six at Premier Mandatories including one last year in Miami and two at Indian Wells.
It’s been a decade since Kuznetsova first featured in the BNP Paribas Open final, which she did for two straight years, finishing runner-up to Daniela Hantuchova in 2007 and Ana Ivanovic in 2008. Since then, Kuznetsova hasn’t made it back to the quarterfinals in the Californian desert – until this week, of course, when she has underlined the renaissance she enjoyed during the 2016 season with victories over Johanna Larsson, 26th seed Roberta Vinci, 21st seed Caroline Garcia, 19th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and, most impressively, third seed Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals.
Kuznetsova became the third woman this season to beat the in-form Pliskova, who came into Indian Wells with titles in Brisbane and Doha already under her belt for 2017, edging the big-serving Czech – whose right shoulder and arm were strapped 7-6(5), 7-6(2) – in a match in which Kuznetsova’s greater consistency off the ground gave her the edge.
‘I felt great. I felt like I was just giving all I had in me there, and that's what I work for, you know, the moments that really matter. I just feel great because I have been fighting for every ball,’ Kuznetsova said afterwards.
‘If she managed to win one of the sets and then we go for third, I would still be fighting and still playing every ball. If she manages to win me, I would say great job. But it doesn't change my attempt in the match.’
Kuznetsova and Vesnina have, surprisingly, only played twice on the WTA Tour, and are tied at 1-1, Vesnina winning in straight sets in Dubai in 2009 while Kuznetsova won in straight sets on the clay of Oeiras in 2014. Kuznetsova certainly has an immense advantage in terms of power and athleticism, with Vesnina much more of a finesse player, and if the older Russian can master her sometimes troublesome nerves, she should be the champion when the BNP Paribas Open final takes place on Sunday.
Kuznetsova vs Vesnina is scheduled on Sunday at 11am local/6pm GMT