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Elena Vesnina outlasts Svetlana Kuznetsova, wins title at BNP Paribas Open

After working so hard to earn the crystal trophy awarded to the winner of the BNP Paribas Open and spending three hours and one minute on the court Sunday riding roiling waves of emotion to win the biggest championship of her career, Elena Vesnina looked heartbroken when a tournament official burst into her news conference and took away the precious prize.

Had there been a mistake? Was there a snag in her rags-to-riches story of losing in qualifying here last year and returning to win the title by defeating fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4?

Not at all. There was only one trophy on hand and Roger Federer was about to clinch the men’s championship. It wouldn’t look good to have an empty-handed Federer appear before the cameras, so Vesnina’s trophy was whisked off to appear in Federer’s photos.

It was the only time all day Vesnina relinquished anything without a fight.

Momentarily devastated when a net cord fell in Kuznetsova’s favor to give Kuznetsova the first set, Vesnina gathered her energy and confidence to mount a four-game winning streak in the second set and another in the third. There were 16 service breaks in the match. It wasn’t textbook tennis but Vesnina’s heart never faltered, even when Kuznetsova — a two-time Grand Slam champion — had leads of 4-1 in the second set and 4-2 in the third.

“I always keep coming back. I stick there, you know?” said Vesnina, 30, who will rise to a career-best 13 in the next world rankings. “I was just not giving anything that moment.

“When I broke her for four-all and went to serve for the match, I had this in my mind: I was like, ‘I’m not going to give it.’ I went to serve and I was like, ‘I’m never going to lose this game.’ ”

Kuznetsova, 31, didn’t have the same mental and physical resolve that Vesnina did Sunday and said she didn’t feel comfortable on the court and was too passive against an aggressive Vesnina. But she refused to dwell on a defeat, even one for which she earned a runner-up check of $573,680. Vesnina won $1,175,505.

“I lost a match which I should have won but, you know, this is tennis,” Kuznetsova said. “Nobody died, so I move on, and I’m on a good way.”

Vesnina, a skilled doubles player who had won two Grand Slam doubles titles and Olympic gold at Rio with Ekaterina Makarova, couldn’t explain her decline in her singles game in recent years. She had some discouraging days, but her sports psychology education helped her adjust her goals to focus on small bits of progress.

“I knew I had the game but I didn’t have it right now. I was thinking maybe I should focus on the doubles more,” she said. “But my team — my family, my mom, my dad, my husband — would keep saying to me, ‘You are a good player. You have a game. You have a shot that you can beat anybody.’

“My kind of game, I’m doing a lot of unforced errors. I’m playing aggressive, I’m playing good angles, and I’m moving the openings around and I’m using the net game as well. I’m not afraid to come in and finish the point at the net, which is kind of an all-court game, which is quite difficult to play against when it’s on. That’s the thing —to keep your game on for the whole tournament.”

A semifinal appearance at Wimbledon last summer led her to believe things were coming together for her, but she wasn’t sure how far she’d get here. “I think nobody could pick me at the beginning of the tournament, that I could win this title. Me, also. I couldn’t pick myself,” she said, smiling.

Her next challenge is to perform well when she’s expected to win. “I really start to believe in my game now. I really believe more I can beat big players on big courts and to be on such a big stage for the whole two weeks,” she said. “When you have such a prestigious trophy like here at BNP Paribas I think you can believe that anything can happen in your life.”

About that trophy … she will get it back. The next one is up to her.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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