Reem Abulleil caught up with two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova during her preparations in Dubai ahead of her long-awaited return from wrist surgery.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova steps onto the immaculate palm tree-lined courts at Al Qasr in Dubai to warm up for her practice.
Her coach Carlos Martinez and hitting partner Matteo Fago wait on the sidelines as she runs her own fitness drills. The 32-year-old Russian pays particular attention to her left wrist, which was operated on last November.
The former world No. 2, now down to 19, hasn’t played a match since October 1, 2017. She plans on making a return to the tour next week at Indian Wells, where she made the final last season.
Sport360 caught up with Kuznetsova during her training block in Dubai earlier this month to find out how her recovery and rehab has been going.
How has your wrist felt during your preparations so far?
I’m starting to play some backhands so I’m looking forward to compete hopefully very soon. Also it has to heal well and to not go through a lot of pain.
It’s good, I don’t know I thought it would be harder. I don’t know, I’m not 100 per cent recovered so it’s a little bit early to say but it’s an experience for me. It was the first surgery that I’ve done.
I was really scared before the surgery, I was like ‘what’s going to happen?’ because you always hear people doing surgeries and you’re like ‘okay, sports, athletes, surgery is fine’ and when it actually happens to you it’s so weird. When I was on the bed before the surgery I was like ‘uuuhhh’. Plus I realised that it’s very difficult to find your doctor.
I injured my wrist at the US Open and the doctors there told me that after two weeks of rest I’ll be fine. Then I rested for two weeks and flew to China and it’s nothing like fine, it’s the same pain. Then I sent my MRI to different doctors and got like five different opinions. It’s not easy to take the decision. Plus I went to Moscow and saw other doctors, then I went to Belgium, then I had offers to go to the States, to Germany, to different kinds of clinics and it’s hard because everybody gives you a different opinion. So I’ve chosen mine and I don’t regret it so hopefully it’ll work out.
So where did you end up having the surgery?
I had the surgery in Belgium. Doctor Frederik Verstreken, who operated on Kim Clijsters and Belinda Bencic. I spoke to Belinda before surgery, I spoke to Kim. I had dinner with Kim and went to see her daughter play basketball and to a basketball game of the team her husband is coaching and I went to her home.
We were sitting in the kitchen and she said ‘it’s crazy I can’t believe you’re sitting in my kitchen in Belgium’. It was fun. She was feeding her pig, she has pigs and chicken and stuff like that, and then we went to the basketball game and then someone called her and told her she forgot to close the gate and the pig was in the street. It was really funny and I enjoyed some time with her, it was great.
Is there anything Kim told you that helped ease your worries about the surgery?
She told me your wrist will be like this thin, we laughed. We talked about old stuff, the things we faced being a tennis player, your experiences, I told her my story, she told me hers. It was very interesting.
How did you deal with it all, the injury, the surgery, the comeback?
I’m blessed that I didn’t have so many injuries throughout my career. Every time an injury happened to me I believe I need the time off from travelling and practicing and playing so I spent good time, some great things happened to me off the court. I always say you realise that life is not only about tennis. It was a chance to try myself in different projects, I did different things.
What kind of things did you do?
I was a TV presenter, doing music news. A couple of times not like regularly. On a Russian music channel. I was on a couple of different TV shows, doing rap and stuff like that. I was about to do another one but it didn’t work out. So stuff with TV and radio, I like it, I don’t see why not.
I like the TV, I like to talk to people, to communicate, to have interesting chats, talking to successful people from different industries.
Do you feel refreshed stepping again on the court after the break you had?
It’s different. First when you start after being off you say ‘I’m so full of energy, I want to practice’ then you practice and you’re dead. You realise the older you get, the more difficult it is to get into shape. You learn every time because your body is always different and you learn to adjust the practice and everything. So I’m just trying to figure out how best to prepare my body and we’ll see how it works out.
Does your wrist still hurt?
I don’t feel the old pain but I still feel my wrist because it’s been operated on. But the doctor said it should be like that and slowly it will go away.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from this experience?
It’s just life, it goes on. You face some obstacles and you have to adjust. I just realised that one day when I stop I have to find other things to do, to have different goals when tennis doesn’t work one day. I enjoyed watching the Australian Open from the couch, not from the 40-degree heat. Some years it’s great not to go in such hot weather but I missed Australia because I like that country a lot.
Speaking of Australia, what do you make of Caroline Wozniacki’s maiden Grand Slam win in Melbourne? Do you notice anything different about her game?
I don’t think she changed her game, she’s the same for me. of course you can have less or more confidence, you have better or worse draws. It was a matter of time so her time came and all things came together at this Australian Open. I’m really happy for her, I congratulate her for such a great achievement and it’s good that it has finally happened to her.
She got a lot of flak in the past for being No. 1 without winning a Slam…
Many players are like that. It’s okay, as long as she is happy, and I think she’s happy now, she’s engaged, everything is working out. If your life outside of tennis is good and comfortable I think the tennis is smoother.
You have runner-up points to defend at Indian Wells, are you able to not think about that and just focus on your recovery?
I think sometimes but you know what can I do? So far I’m focusing on getting my wrist and body in shape, my best condition just to go and perform. To think about it doesn’t make any sense.
Is there any part of your career that you look back on and wish you could change?
I just remember my horrible year, 2005, after the success I had in 2004, it was so much and then it was kind of a crash down. I was still top-20, top-30 but it was a really difficult year. But when you’re 20 years old and you face so many things, I wish to have my experience of now or maybe some right people who can slow me down and correct me in the right time.
Is there anything you wish to achieve before you decide to retire, is getting to world No. 1 for example something you’d like to check off your bucket list?
Yes of course it would be great but I don’t want to think about it that it’s the only goal in my life. Because otherwise it’s going to be difficult like that. My life doesn’t end on this thing. But it would be a nice achievement definitely.
When you were watching the Australian Open from home, did you ever think to yourself ‘I could’ve caused some serious damage in that open draw’?
To make damage you’ve got to be in very good shape because everybody is very well-prepared right now. And when I got my injury I was very tired. You’ve got to have internal power in order to play great. It’s not about an open draw or not. I believe I can make it open and I believe I can win. But the first condition is I have to be powerful inside, that’s the key for me, and hopefully my time off will help me with that.
In the past, did you ever imagine that your peers like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka would be back on tour as mothers?
It’s great for them that they have the desire to play while having kids. I think if I would have a kid I would stay home because for me to travel with a kid is so difficult, and it’s a lot of frustration from my side. But if it works for them, why not?
Do you know when you plan on playing your first tournament?
I’m trying to go for Indian Wells, that’s my plan. My doctor tells me a little bit later but we’ll see.
What do you make of Roger Federer’s success, winning Australia and getting back to No. 1 at the age of 36?
Roger is the best, it’s unbelievable. I’m so proud to be his fan. This life it’s burning you out a lot. I think Roger he learned over the years, and probably for sure with help of Mirka, and having a great team around him, organising all the travels and somehow he doesn’t get so tight and so many problems like other players do. It’s smoother for him and of course his potential and talent, everything how it’s organised and how he is, and his greatness on the tennis court it works for him much better, so that’s why he’s so good at that age.
You don’t seem to have a big entourage around you all the time on tour…
I try. For me it’s always difficult to balance it, from one side I want people around me because I feel lonely on the road and stuff like that, but from another side the less people around me, it’s simpler for me to concentrate to work. So I have to balance. I ask some friends to travel with me, sometimes some people travel with me, but it depends on how I’m feeling.
Is there one person you feel you depend on the most?
I don’t want to be dependent, that’s my main thing. If you’re dependent then you’re in a big hole. Of course Carlos supports me a lot. I don’t think I depend on him but he brings me a lot of support during tournaments. He knows my game, he knows me very well and it’s great because he gives me straightforward opinions.
Do you plan on playing less tournaments to preserve your body this season?
I already made the programme lower and I’m trying. The thing is if you play less you’ve got to play better in order to keep the ranking. And I want to balance some small events in order to get some confidence to go then to bigger events.
The men are trying to get a greater share of money from the Grand Slams, do you think the women should do that too?
I heard of that. I never look actually for the numbers that much. We make quite a small percentage of everything. I’m a tennis player, it’s not for me to decide that. If the women decide to do it, I’ll support them for sure.
There have been a couple of doping bans recently with Sara Errani and Thomaz Bellucci. Do you follow such stuff closely and read up on the cases?
I’d rather ask the athlete because sometimes in press you cannot say something, sometimes they write it their way. If I know the athlete I’d rather ask. The thing is the doping system has become so strict that you can take some cold medicine and unfortunately you can (fail a test). It’s getting opposite. Appearances at home, these times zones, you have to be there at this time. I don’t know sometimes where I’m going to sleep, where I’m going to be.
Before applying any cream, I say it’s better not to do it. I even buy tea and wonder if this tea is alright. But of course whoever is cheating must pay the price.