LUGANO, Switzerland - Wildcard Svetlana Kuznetsova got her latest comeback off to a winning, albeit arduous, start at the Samsung Open presented by Cornèr with a first-round upset of No.6 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(6) in two hours and 22 minutes.
The two-time Grand Slam champion was playing her first match since Guangzhou last September, having spent six-and-a-half months on the sidelines recuperating from a knee injury - and was facing an in-form opponent in fellow Russian Alexandrova, whose current World No.57 ranking is just one spot below her career high.
However, the 24-year-old's rise has come largely on the back of her hard court results - particularly indoors, where she has compiled a 19-3 record since October, but also carried over outdoors in spectacular style last month when she upset Caroline Wozniacki in the second round of Indian Wells. Clay has been a question mark thus far in Alexandrova's career - today's loss drops her to a 3-11 record in WTA main draws on the terre battue - in contrast to her illustrious compatriot, who has been one of the finest exponents of classic clay tennis over nearly two decades.
Kuznetsova's game was - understandably - far from classic initially, though. The 33-year-old's backhand repeatedly found the net in the first set as her unforced error total mounted to 18, and her rust was particularly exposed on big points: Kuznetsova missed all four of her break point chances in the opener, double faulted on the first that she faced herself, and was unable to take advantage of Alexandrova committing three double faults in the fourth game.
Having escaped that wobble, Alexandrova played with increasing confidence to close the set out by breaking Kuznetsova again, firing a booming backhand return on her fourth set point. But the Linz finalist's service woes were far from over: a fifth double fault handed an immediate break over to start the second set, the second of what would be six consecutive games against the server. Indeed, Alexandrova would commit at least one double fault in each of her service games in the second act - and her tally for the day would rise inexorably to an extremely unlucky 13.
In light of this, it was unsurprisingly Kuznetsova who eventually broke through in the second set, staving off three break points to grind out a hold for 4-2 - a game that seemed to finally enable the World No.109 to settle into a semblance of a groove. Teeing off on return and showing flashes of her vintage groundstrokes, Kuznetsova reeled off seven straight games to level the match and leap to a 3-0 double break lead in the deciding set.
There would be more twists and turns yet, though. Shanks returned to Kuznetsova's ground game - and though she retained one of her breaks to move up 5-3, a netted smash enabled Alexandrova to hold before, incredibly, a dead net cord for the younger Russian levelled the scoreboard at 5-5.
Two uncharacteristically straightforward service holds took the match into a deciding tiebreak, where the craziness resumed. Both Alexandrova's serve and return deserted her at worst possible moment as the Budapest semifinalist coughed up her 12th and 13th double faults of the match, and failed to land her first three returns in court - but, having collapsed in this manner to fall behind 2-6, managed to conjure up three winners and grind out a tough rally to save four consecutive match points.
But Alexandrova's reprieve was only temporary. Having played so well to get back to 6-6, the Limoges 125K champion promptly offered up two cheap netted backhands - her 69th and 70th unforced errors of the match - for Kuznetsova to finally take the win on her fifth match point.
With the former World No.2 also committing 47 unforced errors over the course of the day, today's tilt was perhaps more notable for its dramatic twists and turns than its sustained quality - but a healthy return to the sport for Kuznetsova is nonetheless an extremely welcome sight to see. The reigning Washington champion will get a chance to extend her comeback against either Timea Bacsinszky or Tamara Korpatsch in the second round.