CINCINNATI, OH, USA - No.8 Svetlana Kuznetsova believes Russian star Anna Kournikova does not get the respect she deserves for being one of the country's pre-eminent tennis trailblazers. Speaking ahead of the Western & Southern Open, the Russian No.1 was asked which players she would include if she were writing a book on the history of Russian women's tennis.
"Anna Kournikova is No.1 for sure," Kuznetsova said during All Access Hour. "For me, she brought really big popularity to Russian tennis, women's tennis. Everyone after her was just after her. For me, she was a big huge push."
One of the most popular WTA stars ever, Kournikova reached a career-high singles ranking of No.8 in 2000 and held the No.1 doubles ranking in 1999. Kuznetsova credited Kournikova for popularizing women's tennis in modern Russia as well as bringing Russian tennis to the global stage. Years on, Russia has become a bedrock nation for women's tennis, with a seemingly endless pipeline of talented players.
"I always defend her when they say 'Oh, she never won a tournament.' So what? She was a Top 10 player. It's not just about winning tournaments. She was a great image for the game, not only for Russia but for tennis all over the world. This was a huge impact.
"You see, we can talk about Russian player who made a big splash in Russia, but other players made it huge in the world. For sure it would be Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and me. For sure these would be the names."
Kuznetsova bristles at the unwarranted criticism directed at Kournikova, who did not win a WTA singles title during her short career, forced to retire early due to ongoing injuries.
"Everybody was saying she never won a tournament, hee hee ha ha," Kuznetsova said. "I'm like ok, have you been to Top 10? Have you ever held a racquet? I'm always surprised people give these opinions without achieving anything in their life. If you achieve something in your life, in any sport or any work, you know the dedication and how much it takes to say something bad about someone. I would not say anything about anybody because I know they're dedicated and this is the best they can do. I think she was great."
"She also treated people nice. I remember we were playing this Sunshine Cup as a team in the juniors, and she took all the girls to her house. To see that, it was amazing. I never saw anything like that before. This example, it's not just about your achievements. It's the example you give to the kids, the next generation, how you help people."
That example still lives with Kuznetsova, who at 32-years-old has evolved from a wide-eyed, brace-faced 19-year-old Slam champion into one of the most respected locker room veterans. Kuznetsova currently sits at No.10 on the Porsche Race to Singapore Leaderboard and says she's been pleased with the consistency she's developed this season. Building on a fantastic 2016 season that saw her qualify for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global since 2009, Kuznetsova had made the Round of 16 or better at every tournament this season before taking an opening loss to CiCi Bellis last week at the Rogers Cup.
"Except for the last week, yes," Kuznetsova said with a laugh after being asked if she was pleased with her season so far. "Last week was pretty bad. But the rest is good. By 32-years-old I'm getting consistent, something I'm achieving at this veteran age."
Kuznetsova credits part of her longevity in the game to staying mentally fresh. She has adjusted her practice schedule to practice less, while compensating by keeping her practice sessions at a high intensity level. The affable Russian is also one of the few top players to consistently practice with other Top 10 players.
"Players like to practice with me, I enjoy practicing with them. If I practice I go for my best and I want to practice with the best.... There are players I always practice with. Aga, Simona, Pliskova, we all have each other's numbers and we can text back and forth, 'Do you want to practice?'"
Of course, that begged the question: Which player does she text with the most?
"Today? I got Serena's text," Kuznetsova said laughing. "I was really surprised. It took her months to answer me but I was still really happy to get her text. But probably Simona or Pliskova."
So what did Serena have to say?
"I cannot tell you! I'm like the soccer player who's gonna score the penalty. You put me in front of the goal and I'm not going to score you that one."