2010 has seen many “tennis firsts” typified with Francesca Schiavone becoming the first Italian lady to lift a major at Roland Garros.
Last week landed us with another – an Estonian’s name etched on to a WTA title for the first time. That name is Kaia Kanepi as she lifted the Palermo Open much to her country’s delight. This isn’t just a flash in the pan either. She is the only Estonian woman to have reached the WTA Top 20 players in the world (ranked at 18 in May 2009) and she also became the first Estonian woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter final at the 2008 French Open, a feat she repeated at Wimbledon this year.
She rates clay as her best surface so it will be no surprise to those following her career that Palermo is her first tour victory. But for those who do not, let us give you another insight in to a first-timer in the WTA winners’ circle.
Kanepi was born June 10, 1985 in Haapsalu, Estonia to her real estate broker father Jaak and homemaker Anne who both also played tennis. She began playing aged 8 and topped the ITF Junior Rankings before turning pro in 2000. She still lives in Haapsalu and currently plays without a full-time coach or agent. Her former coaches include Luca Appino and fellow Estonian player Mait Kunnap.
After plying her trade and learning her sport on the circuit for six years she began to taste her first real success in 2006. At the Gaz de France Stars tournament in Hasselt, Belgium, she came through three qualification rounds before defeating Anne Kremer, Nathalie Dechy, Eleni Daniilidou, Francesca Schiavone and Michaella Krajicek before eventually succumbing to Kim Clijsters 3-6, 6-3, 4-6.
Rather than resting on her laurels Kanepi pushed on. Starting the 2007 season in Australia she reached the second round of the Open, defeating Italy’s Flavia Pennetta before losing to local girl Alicia Molik. The rest of her season was mixed but she recorded some impressive results over a few of the world’s top players including Patty Schnyder at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida.
2008 saw that impressive run at the French which was eventually halted in the quarters by Svetlana Kuznetsova while she pushed Serena Williams hard in their first round encounter at Wimbledon before falling 5-7, 3-6.
Another quarterfinal followed after qualifying for the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo where Dinara Safina halted her progress and she followed that up with a semifinal defeat to top seed Maria Kirilenko at the Hansol Women’s Open in Seoul.
She capped off a highly impressive end to 2008 with her second WTA Tour final appearance. After seeing off Lucie Safarova, Yanina Wickmayer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Aleksandra Wozniak but it was the Dane Caroline Wozniacki who this time left her broken hearted with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win.
For her exploits throughout the year the Association of Estonian Sports Journalists named Kanepi their Best Female Estonian Athlete of 2008. Kanepi was really starting to make waves.
After a career-best third round at the 2009 Aussie Open Kanepi was part of the Estonian Fed Cup team that caused a stir during the 2009 tournament.
Another semifinal appearance surfaced at the Dubai Tennis Championships including a victory over Jelena Jankovic who, being ranked at No. 3 in the world at the time, provided Kanepi with her biggest scalp yet on the tennis circuit. After another quarterfinal at the Rome Masters, 2009 quietened down somewhat for the youngster.
2010 has seen Kanepi looking in much better physical condition than ever before and she has been playing much more powerfully and confidently. This was evident in the Fed Cup matchup between Estonia and Belgium earlier this year when Kanepi defeated returning star Justine Henin on the clay in Belgium 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3.
She won her seventh and eighth ITF tournaments in May and then shocked Sam Stosur in the first round at Wimbledon. This proved to be her second Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance where she even had two match points before eventually losing 6-4, 6-7, 6-8 to Petra Kvitova of Czechoslovakia.
And so we came to Palermo where the 25-year-old didn’t drop a set throughout the whole tournament on her way to victory. Her two-hand backhand is proving useful on the pro circuit and is proving a useful weapon against some of the biggest stars of the game.
With much of clay tennis over for 2010 we may need to wait till next year to see her true potential but there are some who will really fancy to cause a few upsets in New York in September.
Whatever happens, keep an eye out for Kaia on a court near you soon.