Svetlana Kuznetsova: There’s no substitute for experience. A two-time major titlist, Sveta has plenty, having won the ‘04 US Open and ‘09 Roland Garros. She’s not one to wilt on the big stage.
Elena Vesnina: Armed with a degree in sports psychology and a brand of self-confidence that only comes with a chunk of dues-paying years on the WTA Tour, the Olympic gold medalist can not only out-hit her opponents, she can out-think them, too.
The women's draw at the 2017 BNP Paribas Open has been pared down to a pair of resurgent Russians -- No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 15 Elena Vesnina -- who in their 30’s are playing some of the best tennis of their careers. It marks the first-all-Russian final in Indian Wells since 2006, when Maria Sharapova defeated Elena Dementieva 6-1, 6-2.
Oddly, they’ve met on only two previous occasions, Vesnina claiming their third-round clash in Dubai in 2009, 6-4, 3-6, 6-0; and Kuznetsova taking their Estoril semi in 2014, 6-3, 6-1.
Kuznetsova has long been a second-week presence at the majors, having reached four Grand Slam finals, winning two (2004 US Open, 2009 Roland Garros). The winner of 17 overall singles titles, she rose to a career-high No. 2 in 2007. But don’t for a moment think that she’s beyond her prime. In 2016, she posted the sixth Top 10 finish of her career and, more importantly, is in love with the game more than ever.
|Svetlana Kuznetsova||Elena Vesnina|
"I think I'm enjoying it the most now, because when you're so young and you get to the top of the game, you don't value it so much," said the Muscovite, who advanced to the final with a steely 7-6(5), 7-6(2) victory over 2016 US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova, a win in which she regularly flashed her defensive prowess. "When you play a couple of years at 20, 25 in the rankings, and then you make it back to the Top 10, you value it so much more with the effort, what you've done, what you achieved. So I'm enjoying it much more now, because now I know the value of this."
The tattooed baseliner is in her element at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. She was a back-to-back BNP Paribas Open finalist in 2007 (l. to Daniela Hantuchova) and 2008 (l. to Ana Ivanovic), and her topsin game seems an ideal fit for the conditions. While the ball flies through the desert air, the hard courts have some real bite, which can produce high, outside-the-wheelhouse bounces.
"She obviously likes playing here with the balls flying and jumping quite high," said Vesnina, who’s come a long way since her loss in the first round of qualifying last year. "She's using her powerful forehand topspin here a lot. It brings her a lot of points. She’s been serving really well in key moments. It's a very difficult match when you're playing someone from the same country. It's never easy, but I'm going to just enjoy it."
Vesnina, for years a threat on the doubles court (she captured Olympic gold in Rio with countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova), has only recently begun to break through in singles. Last year, she reached her first Slam semi at Wimbledon, and went on to post her first-ever Top-20 finish.
"It's all the work together," said Vesnina, who could rise as high as No. 13 with a victory here. "I got more mature. I've been very professional the last couple of years. I was working a lot on my fitness. I was working a lot on my serve. And women's tennis is all about the mental side. When you're getting more wins, you're getting more confidence. I always believed I could do better. When my ranking was No. 116, I felt that it was not mine — not my spot, not my place. I knew I could improve and get even better. When you believe in yourself, something can happen."
That self-belief was on display in Stadium 1 on Friday, as the Ukrainian-born Vesnina flat-out overpowered 28th seed Kristina Mladenovic, hitting through the court and going for lines. It was one of those in-the-zone outings in which everything seems to be working, when you just can’t miss.
"It’s not every day you have nights like that," she said.
"She plays pretty flat, aggressive tennis," said Kuznetsova. "That's it. I play more defensively, but my spin is my key, probably."
Given her experience, Kuznetsova will come in as the favorite. And for good reason. She’s been in these situations countless times. Meanwhile, it will be the biggest moment of Vesnina’s singles career. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be overwhelmed by the moment. She has a long association with this place, after all. She came to Indian Wells upon her very first visit to the United States, a wide-eyed 16-year-old ranked outside the Top 250. She didn't even get into the qualifying rounds.
"I didn't know how to enter the tournament," she confided. "I was dreaming just to get here."
Fourteen years later, she’s in the final. The very stuff dreams are made of.