NEW YORK (AP) – Svetlana Kuznetsova was shopping for shirts the other day when several people stopped her, asking if she was the defending U.S. Open champion.

So what if most didn’t know her last name. At least they recognized her.

Kuznetsova has been largely overlooked in the buildup to the U.S. Open, with all the attention centered on Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters. Her first-round match, against fellow Russian Ekaterina Bychkova this morning, isn’t even one of those featured on center court.

“There’s lots of good players to play on the center court here,” Kuznetsova said Sunday, shrugging. “I am playing. I think I will play there also (sometime). So I don’t mind.”

Kuznetsova may not be as glamorous as some of the other Russians, but her star power hasn’t been helped by her recent play. Though she’s ranked fifth in the world, she’s 27-14 in 20 tournaments this year, and is still looking for her first title.

She did make the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the finals in Warsaw, Poland. But she hasn’t gotten past the third round since Wimbledon, and was bothered by a back injury in her loss in Toronto two weeks ago.

“I think I’ve been going pretty fast … these few years,” she said. “This year I was not improving so much because I am already in the top 10 and it’s much harder to stay there and to go higher.

“Last year was a big breakthrough, and this year I couldn’t make it so good also,” she added. “So I am expecting it still to be better.”

Kuznetsova overwhelmed Elena Dementieva in straight sets for her first Grand Slam title. She was the third Russian in a row to win a Grand Slam, joining Anastasia Myskina (French) and Sharapova (Wimbledon).

“I was not that satisfied, not that happy with (this) year,” Kuznetsova said. “Coming here, it just changes everything. I just forget all the tournaments that have been before, I forget all what’s behind me and I just remember the memories and want to do good here. I want to play my best tennis and don’t think what happened before it.”

Notes: Serena Williams will be sporting some serious bling when she takes the court at the U.S. Open. The two-time Open champ is planning to wear a pair of platinum chandelier earrings that have 13 carats of diamonds and are worth almost $40,000. The earrings, designed by Erica Courtney, are called “The Dream Catcher.”


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