first timer

Step Forward Kaia Kanepi

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.

TENNIS PEOPLE: WHO WILL BE NO. 1 AFTER ROLAND GARROS?

* The 2010 French Open gives us a mouth-watering three-way battle for the coveted No. 1 slot in the South African Airways ATP World Rankings. Current incumbent Roger Federer, previous holder Rafa Nadal and potential first-timer Novak Djokovic are all in the mix dependent on results over the next two weeks. Here’s how it will work. If R-Fed makes the semis he remains No. 1. Anything less coupled with Nadal lifting his favourite Slam and Nadal charges back to the top. Djokovic must lift the trophy and hope Federer falls before the quarterfinals. Keep your eyes peeled on those three tennis fans.

* The Williams sisters are aiming for another record this fortnight at Roland Garros. Having returned to the top two spots in the singles rankings if they lift the doubles title they will become only the sixth and seventh players ever to hold both the top two singles and doubles rankings behind Martina Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters. However, they can also lose in the first round here in Paris and take the top two spots, as long as neither Liezel Huber or Cara Black reach the semifinals with their respective partners following their recent split.

* The records continue to topple at Roland Garros. Justine Henin’s first round victory over Tsvetana Pironkova was her 22nd straight victory at the Slam where she has also now won a record 37 sets in a row for the Open Era. She is now three behind Helen Wills Moody’s all-time record of 40. Henin’s French Open record now stands at 36-4, an incredible 90% winning record.

*Venus Williams has said she still harbors dreams of a first French Open crown despite being on the eve of her 30th birthday. The world No. 2 is aiming, along with her compatriots, to end a seven-year barren spell on the clay courts for Americans since her sister Serena lifted the singles trophy in 2002. “It goes without saying, I believe I can win,” said Venus in an interview on the USTA website. “The U.S. has played well here formerly. The last few years haven’t been as great for us, but if anything, for me, my whole motivation is to do better. Hopefully the rest of the Americans feel the same way as I do.” She also spoke of her dream of one day sitting on top of the world again. If she manages to wrestle it back off of Serena she would be the oldest incumbent of the No.1 slot since Martina Navratilova in 1987. “It feels good to be moving up the ranks. Obviously, when you get to No. 2 of course the next dream is 1. That’s definitely on my radar. Everybody wants to be No. 1, especially me, because I’m closer than most of the other players on the tour,” she joked. “So it means a lot because day in, day out, all the hours that I put in…when you get to the top of the rankings is definitely a pat on the back, like this is all worth it. I want to put the work in to be able to get there.”

* British No. 2 Alex Bogdanovic has been handed a Davis Cup lifeline by new Great Britain captain Leon Smith. Former skipper John Lloyd axed Bogdanovic after his continual failure to win rubbers but Smith refused to write him off. “He’s our number two, and our number two by quite a distance, so he has to be in the reckoning,” Smith told BBC Sport. “If there were four or five players ahead of him, it would be different. Alex is one of the guys that has to be in the mix.” Smith has also refused to give up hope of Andy Murray ending his Davis Cup exile to help Britain in their crucial Europe/Africa Zone Group II playoff against Turkey in July. “Any country would want Andy to play – [but] if he doesn’t, I totally respect that,” he said on a visit to the French Open. “He makes a big difference to the team, but we’ve got other players who can come in that are capable of doing the job.”

*American qualifier Michael Yani’s marathon first round defeat to Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko must have felt like a never-ending story. Starting Sunday night, bad light forced play to continue on Monday morning and after four hours and 56 minutes Yani finally went down 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 10-12. The match consisted of 71 games, equalling a tournament record since tiebreakers were introduced in 1973. “Ridiculous,” is how Yani described it.

* Ernests Gulbis faces a race against time to be fit for Wimbledon after an MRI scan revealed he has torn his hamstring. It will force him out of Queens and may make him miss both the European slams, reports The Globe and Mail. It would be a shame as he was expected to perform well at both after a fantastic clay season in 2010.

* Sam Querrey has been highly critical of his attitude towards tennis following his four-set defeat to countryman Robby Ginepri in the first round at Roland Garros. “I started thinking about leaving and pulling out of the doubles and how much I wanted to go home, how much I wasn’t enjoying myself,” he said. “When I lost that second set tiebreaker and got broken in the first game, I was done. I wanted to be off the court. I’ve not been a professional…on and off for the last few months. I don’t want to face the opponent and myself.” It mirrors the problems Andy Murray admitted he had during his slump shortly after losing the Aussie Open final to Federer.

*1999 French Open Champion Andre Agassi has highlighted Rafa Nadal as an “undeniable favourite” to triumph once more in Roland Garros in an interview with Fox Sports. “Rafa’s forehand is nasty,” said Agassi. “On clay I would have had to play on the edge against him and play lights out and that’s not the way to play tennis. It’s about calculated risk and he’s going to make you take some crazy chances because the alternative is to get moved around court like you are on a string.” It is an interesting and vibrant interview in which Agassi gives us the lowdown on all the main contenders for the second Slam of the year. Check it out over at the Fox Sports website.

*Bulgarian screecher Victoria Azarenka has been fined $4,000 by the French Open after she failed to attend a press conference following her shock 1-6, 2-6 defeat to Gisela Dulko on Sunday. The 10th seed had reached the quaterfinals of her previous three Slams including the French last year.

*The Americans are determined to show that they are no pushovers on clay. Following the announcement by the USTA that clay courts are to be installed at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center for the first time top Americans Sam Querrey and John Isner have decided to blog all about their 2010 French Open experience for Tennis.com. Follow all their Paris adventures here.

*Serena Williams’ temperament is under question once more after a reported comment made to Jelena Jankovic following their recent Rome semifinal. Williams held her hand up whilst receiving serve while 5-3 up in the third set and the umpire ordered a replay of the point, angering Jankovic. Jankovic went on to win and as the players shook hands at the net Serena whispered something in to the Serb’s ears which sounded like “Don’t think I would do that…I’m not Justine,” although microphones may be inconclusive. If true, it would appear to be a swipe at Justine Henin following a similar incident during hers and Williams’ 2003 French Open semifinal where Henin raised her hand as Williams served which the umpire did not see. He denied Williams another first serve and she accused Henin of “lying and fabricating” as she did not admit her action to the umpire at the time. When questioned about the comment in a pre-French Open interview Serena said: “”I don’t even remember that. I just remember I had a match point, and, oh, I should have won that match. I was really disappointed… Jankovic is a really good clay court player, so I felt like…I can’t take anything negative out of that. I was just really like, ‘Ah, I was really oh so close.’”

*Former British tennis great Tim Henman has thrown his weight behind Andy Murray’s bid to win Wimbledon back for the British public. “I really think Wimbledon could be Murray’s,” said Henman. “He played great last year getting through to his first semi and I think he was very disappointed to lose to Roddick. I think Murray’s matured again, he’s improved, his game is better, he’s got 12 months more experience and I think he’s got every chance of winning.”

*Former French Open finalist Guillermo Coria has admitted that thoughts of a comeback have crossed his mind. “I’m 28 and yes, it’s true I’ve asked myself that question,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve had a good time and now, when I see a tournament on television, I’m nostalgic. I’m not training really but I’m on the court everyday because I’m training my little brother and some Argentine hopefuls.” He retired in April last year.

*Dinara Safina is bidding to end her recent slump by parting ways with coach Zeljko Krajan, whom she often credits for her meteoric rise to the world No. 1 slot in April 2009. According to Russia’s Sport Express she will be working with Gaston Etlis during Roland Garros.

*Aussie Jelena Dokic has also parted ways with her coach, Serbian Borna Bikic. After going down 2-6, 2-6 to Lucie Safarova in the first round at Roland Garros she merely said: “I’m alone.” According to the press in Serbia, Dokic is still dating Bikic’s brother Tin.

*British No. 3 Katie O’Brien was beaming from ear to ear after making the cut for the main draw of the French Open for the first time this year. In an interview with BBC Sport she said: “I’ve been injury-free all year so in that respect I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been stranded in South Africa [due to the volcanic ash cloud decimating British flight zones] so my clay preparations were disrupted a bit but…I feel good.” “I think the French Open is really nice, has its own unique atmosphere,” she continued. “I like the vibe about the place and I like the clay. I like to ground out long points and use my fitness to ground opponents down. I think my game suits quite well to clay.” Unfortunately her run came to an end in round one as she fought well against American veteran Jill Craybas before going down 0-6, 6-4, 2-6 in just over two hours.

*The USTA website is receiving blogs from a host of American stars throughout Roland Garros on their experiences at the Slam. Andre Agassi, Melanie Oudin and Mardy Fish are the names putting pen to paper so far and all offer different insights in to the behind the scenes action in Paris. Check the USTA website daily to see who’s next.

* This week’s ATP World Rankings (24/05/2010) have seen Russian Nikolay Davydenko climb in to the world’s top 5 despite not having played since fracturing his wrist at Indian Wells. He climbs above Argentine Juan Martin del Potro who has been out for even longer. Richard Gasquet’s victory at Nice last week sees him jump 23 places in to the top 50 at No. 45 ahead of his home Slam in Paris.

* In the Sony Ericsson WTA Rankings (24/05) there is little significant movement in the top 50 after recent tournaments. Below that, Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria has leapt 19 places from No. 100 to No. 81 following some recent exciting displays. Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic has dropped from 71 to No. 87. Mariana Duque Marino of Columbia enters the top 100 at No. 97.