tour victory

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.

DOES YOUR IMAGE ON COURT AFFECT SUCCESS ON COURT?

By Melina Harris

Hey guys, we’re suffering from yet another bitingly cold snap in London and I thought to myself as I sat down to write my column today; what topic in tennis could serve to warm me up? I couldn’t help but be magnetically drawn for some strange reason to Feliciano Lopez discussing his first ATP tour victory in 2004 in Vienna on YouTube while researching for inspiration and it lead me to thinking about the inextricable link between sex appeal, attractiveness and success on court. I began to ponder, being an individual sport, how much does your image affect your success on court? Does it give you a psychological advantage over your opponent? Is image everything, as the Nike slogan once suggested?

Andre Agassi recently admitted in his autobiography ‘Open’ to wearing a hair piece during matches as ‘every morning (he) would wake up to find another piece of (his) identity on the pillow.  He revealed that the thought of losing his hair piece, which had mysteriously gone walkies off his infamous head during a shower on the morning of the 1989 French Open final and had to thus be pinned to his head, was of more importance than losing the actual match, which he did. The world pondered the technical reasons for his loss, when really it was the psychological fear of losing his sex appeal that caused his failure. Indeed, Agassi’s hair was part of his whole identity on and off court; he admitted with hindsight that the hair piece was a ‘chain’ holding him back and it wasn’t until Brooke Shields suggested he shave his head that he began to feel differently. Agassi’s hairpiece is undoubtedly symbolic of the huge impact of sex appeal on a player’s performance and earning potential.

Although Lopez dispelled the ‘looker’s curse’ by winning his first ATP tournament last week, scorcher, Anna Kournikova (one of the most searched for sports stars on the internet) was unable to prove her critics wrong by failing to ever win a WTA singles title, but she sure as hell helped raise the profile of women’s tennis and her earnings through endorsements must have softened the blow a little. In an interview for the Times of London in 2002, she seemed jaded by the constant questions regarding her super model looks. After a first-round loss at Wimbledon (when all the press was concerned with was her outfit) she was famously rattled by a journalist asking ‘how hurtful is the perception that you are all style and no substance?’ and whether she should consider playing at a lower level. Reflecting on that experience she commented to the nervous journalist, ‘Hey, there is nothing I can do to change people’s minds. If they want to see me that way, they will. Sometimes, when I do great, it’s, ‘Oh, after all she can play’. Or ‘Finally she shows more than her looks’. I mean, please! I really don’t pay much attention to that. I have a million other things to worry about.’ Could that pressure and constant focus on her looks have hampered her career? Or was she simply not good enough? But more importantly, did the WTA care as millions of men tuned in and paid for tickets to watch the blonde bombshell bend over?

What particularly annoys me is how I doubt Lopez has ever been asked after yet another disappointing loss; do you think it’s due to your six pack and beautiful eyes? Does looking in the mirror put you off your game so much, that like Narcissus you are so entranced by your own beauty that without realizing your opponent has passed you down the line?

I doubt it very much and let’s be honest; I’d be researching until next winter to find such a quote! I found it intriguing how the WTA seemed to be more proud about three of their stars, Maria Kirilenko, Daniela Hantuchova and Tatiana Golovin appearing in swimsuits in Sports Illustrated last year than say the successes of the Williams sisters on court. Although the WTA didn’t actually organize the shoot, the day the issue was released, the tour sent e-mails to the media about their appearance and posted the release on their website along with a scantily clad photo of the three players. CEO and Chairman Larry Scott commented, ‘We were proud of what happened with Sports Illustrated and our girls being in there…over time that has become a sought-after opportunity by a lot of celebrities and a lot of athletes. Making it into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is sort of a litmus test of your popularity.’ He even went so far as to say, ‘we had three players in there, not necessarily three of our biggest current stars, and it made an important statement about women’s tennis, and the popularity and the attractiveness of our athletes. From that perspective, we were proud of that and promoted it.’ Perhaps the girls’ charity work could have featured more highly Mr. Scott?

What kind of image are the WTA promoting to aspiring young female players? Don’t worry; as long as you’re hot enough to appear in Sports Illustrated then we’ll be proud? It’s interesting that the players they chose to appear in the magazine have had nowhere near the success of say Venus Williams or Justine Henin on court. Perhaps they’d allow them to feature in the proposed tennis world cup but only on the condition that they play in their bikinis?

However, I doubt we’d all be upset if say Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Feliciano Lopez were to strip for Men’s Health magazine but I’d be very surprised if the ATP posted this on their website as the proudest moment of the men’s game.

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach from London. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter. She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.