CINCINNATI, USA - Svetlana Kuznetsova credits a new perspective, a return to simplicity, and improved maturity for her strong return to the tour after a lengthy battle with wrist and knee injuries. Now ranked No.153, the two-time major champion and former World No.2, returned to North American hardcourts last week in Toronto, just her third event since early May.
After getting her visa approved in the 11th hour, Kuznetsova hit the pavement in Toronto and scored two solid wins, including a straight-set victory over Donna Vekic, before losing to Simona Halep. This week, after defeating Anastasija Sevastova, Dayana Yastremska, and Sloane Stephens at the Western & Southern Open, the 34-year-old Russian is now into her first hardcourt quarterfinal since winning the 2018 Citi Open.
"I'm pretty happy," Kuznetsova said. "I didn't expect to play so well so fast back.
"Before this trip I was waiting for my visa. I was waiting for three weeks at home training. I had a program that [coach] Carlos Martinez gave to me. I was trying to follow the program. It's a really different experience for me because I always had a coach and now it changes.
"You have to mature, you have to take this responsibility. Other players, and maybe me, would pay anything for someone to come over and do it. But I believe tennis makes me mature and makes me do different things and makes me better.
"It's not just about the result, it's how I am and how I start to take responsibility. I feel it on the court as well."
It's been a tough 12 months for Kuznetsova, who was forced to skip the early start of the season due to wrist injury, and then struggled with a knee injury before finally starting her season on clay in April. She would go on to compile a 5-7 record through the clay and grass season.
"I've been changing coaches, I've been struggling in different things outside of the court," Kuznetsova said. "I couldn't get it all together for a very long time. I had some injuries. I had different issues, a lot of issues.
"So now, finally, it looks like I'm really in my spot. I'm really happy to train and be on the court."
"I heard on the court -- now it's what? 2019? So I turned pro when it was 2000. So basically I've played for as much as was my age when I won the US Open. For these 19 years, so many things have been [happening] and you cannot stay all the time 100% professional.
"So now I'm 34, and sometimes I don't have so much will to travel and be away from home.
"I have issues with coaches. I have issues with my personal life. I have issues. Then I had visa problems."
According to Kuznetsova, she applied for her U.S. and Canadian visa in February, but as of July 25th, the visas had not been issued. In an Instagram post, Kuznetsova explained to fans that she would not be able to defend her title at the Citi Open due to visa problems.
"My situation was that I haven't been playing, and I have been training and I wanted to play a full swing," Kuznetsova said. "If I won't come to the States, what should I do? My ranking is gonna be over 200. I don't play till the end of the season. To play only China doesn't make any sense. Or you stop your career.
"So it was lots of things on the line. But it was out of my control."
Kuznetsova eventually got her visa approved on the Tuesday before Toronto and took the next flight out to Canada.
"Nothing has been easy," Kuznetsova said. "Then I couldn't get wild cards to many tournaments and I couldn't get in. All this distracts you and I couldn't find a path for myself.
"So I took some time. I've done changes in many things and the ways I look at life. This all changed me, and I'm here willing to play."
As she began her preparation for the North American hardcourts, Kuznetsova reunited with former coach Carlos Martinez, who is currently coaching Daria Kasatkina. After discussing things with Kuznetsova and Kasatkina, Martinez offered Kuznetsova assistance via other coaches from his academy, while also working with Kuznetsova when he can.
"When I asked Carlos if he could help me, he was just starting to work with Dasha," Kuznetsova said. "I said, Look, I don't want to interrupt. I understand Dasha needs him, because she has really long career future and she has really great potential.
"So then he said, I'll try to help you. I will give you my coaches, which works for me. I don't need Carlos 24/7 right now and I'm more than happy what he does for me right now.
"I spoke to Dasha. I said, Look, I can offer you my help in case you need anything. I have a little bit of experience on the circuit, and I can help you out with things and I appreciate if we could share Carlos the times you don't use him.
"She seems to be fine [with it]. I appreciate that."
"I'm coming back to the Spanish background, which I believe [is where] I belong and my game belongs. Doesn't matter how much I would rather go to Russia and I want to live there and train there, but still I have to work this way."
It is no secret that Kuznetsova is one of the most well-respected and beloved players in the game and the support has come out of the woodwork as she plots her return.
"One day I'm sitting in Moscow and I don't have anybody to hit with," Kuznetsova said. "Three days left and I'm not sure if I'm getting a visa to Canada or not, and Mikhail Youzhny called me and said I want to play. So he came to play with me for two days. It helped me out a lot."
Asked what her goals are as she gets backs on court, Kuznetsova said it was about simplicity.
"To win matches," she said. "Just to enjoy. And if I enjoy, it's not even the goal to win matches. It's just to enjoy and to play my game, to look for my game. That's it. That's pretty simple.
"I've been through some things that made me look and value things differently and now I feel more mature on the court. Next year is going to be my 20th anniversary of being pro, so I better be mature," she said with a laugh.
A champion in 2004, Kuznetsova is into the main draw at the US Open and given the form on display in Toronto and Cincinnati, she looks primed to be one of the more dangerous unseeded players in the draw.
"I need to be lucky with the draw," Kuznetsova said. "Last year I had Venus at the US Open, Muguruza at the French. A little bit better draw would help, but I'm ready.
"I'm playing good, so I'm happy. I was supposed to play the Bronx and I said it's ok, I have enough matches. I'm happy and I want to work on things. I still see things to improve and I'm great.
"It's enjoyable to keep things simple."