Kanepi Ousts Reigning Champion Kenin

Kaia Kanepi (photo: Reg Ryan/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 11, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Kaia Kanepi is a veteran tour pro from Tallinn, Estonia, who nobody wants to face early in a Grand Slam draw. Just ask defending Australian Open champion and current World No. 4 Sofia Kenin, who not had to deal with a tough opponent on the court but also the pressure of being a reigning champion.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon at Melbourne Park, the 35-year-old from Kanepi was clearly enjoying the moment. The 65th-ranked Estonian charged her way past Kenin in just 64 minutes, eliminating the fourth and highest-seed from the year’s first major, 6-3, 6-2. She did it with power – 10 aces and 22 winners overall. It was Kanepi’s 13th victory over against a Top 10 player – her second this year – and eighth at a Grand Slam, and it moved her into the third round of the Happy Slam for the third time.

“I’ll take one match at a time and one tournament at a time and it all depends how I feel and how the opponent plays and so on,” said Kanepi, who came into the Australian Open after reaching the final of the Gippsland Trophy tune-up event. She’s 6-1 in Melbourne this year and one of her wins last week ended the 15-match winning streak of World No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka. “I played good today, I served really good and I think it was a good win. …

“This year, I think it helped that I got many matches in the previous week to get used to the conditions. I also played many matches on Margaret Court [Arena] and I also played there today. So, I think that also helped to feel better.”

Meanwhile, Kenin visibly showed tears in her eyes during her press conference. “I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure,” she said. “I’m not obviously used to this, so I just got to figure out how to play at that level that I played at. Because like today and those matches it just hasn’t been there.”

Next, Kanepi, who is one of 10 unseeded players to reach the third round, will face No. 28 seed Donna Vekic. The Croatian beat last year’s Roland Garros semifinalist Nadia Podoroska of Argentina, ranked 32nd, 6-2, 6-2, in 58 minutes.

Svitolina masters older, wiser Gauff

Last year, Coco Gauff won her first three matches at the Australian Open by beating – in order – future Hall of Famer Venus Williams, Sorana Cirstea and 2019 champion Naomi Osaka. Then, she took a set off of eventual champion Sofia Kenin before bowing in the fourth round.

Now, a year older and wiser at age 16, Gauff hoped to leverage her experience in a second-round showdown with World No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine. It was their first career meeting and it didn’t go well for the young American.

Svitolina won 79 percent of her first serves, hit 19 winners and saved all four break points she faced en route to a 6-4, 6-3 win in one hour and 14 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

Earlier this week, after her first-round victory against Jil Teichmann, Gauff said she didn’t feel any pressure. “This is only my second Australian Open,” she said, “so I mean, I’m just going out there and having fun, and today I put way less pressure on myself than I did last week – and you can kind of see how the match played that I kind of played a little bit more free than I was last week.”

Meanwhile, Svitolina, who has been a quarterfinalist in each of her two tournaments in 2021, is looking to improve upon her third-round finish at the Happy Slam from last year. She’s reached the Australian Open quarterfinals twice – in 2018 and 2019 – and is headed in the right direction this year.

“I think just I wanted just to play a good match, and I knew that Coco is all the time playing with a crowd, like fired up,” Svitolina said during her post-match press conference. “So I was expecting her to be straight into the match and playing well, as it happened.I think I faced a break point the first game, and then from then on, I was just pushing myself and I was playing great tennis. I think I played very solid from the beginning until the end, and yeah, it was a really great performance.”

Next, Svitolina faces No. 26 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, who defeated No. 65 Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, for the first time.

Barty winning ugly, but still winning

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty remained unbeaten in 2021, but it wasn’t as easy as a walk in the park with her Border Collie puppy. Instead, she faced fellow Aussie Daria Gavrilova and had to fight off set points against the wild card en route to a 6-1, 7-6 (7) win to move into the third round.

Champions always find a way to win and that’s what Barty did. She hit seven aces and overcame 34 unforced errors, warm conditions (29º Celsius) and gusty winds by hitting 20 winners against her friend and countrywoman, Gavrilova, whom she has now beaten in four of their five career head-to-head encounters.

“I have played in different conditions enough to be able to try and figure out my way and kind of learn on the fly a little bit and how to adjust in a match,” Barty said during her post-match press conference. “Yeah, just happy to be able to play some of the bigger points well when I needed to today.”

Barty, who won the Yarra Valley Classic WTA 500-series tune-up tournament last week, has now won seven straight matches to begin the season. She’s yet to drop a set through the first two rounds this week and now faces No. 29 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, who beat No. 66 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 7-6 (4), in one hour and 47 minutes.

Quarantine hitting partners to meet

Turnabout’s fair play and World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova got her revenge against Danielle Colins at the Australian Open.

In the first match of the day on Rod Laver Arena, the sixth seed Pliskova faced the American No. 46 Collins for the second straight week in Melbourne. Last week, Collins defeated Pliskova from the Czech Republic, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), in the third round of the Yarra Valley Classic en route to a quarterfinal finish. This time, it was Pliskova’s turn to shine. She fired eight aces and hit 23 winners to take out Collins, 7-5, 6-2, in one hour and 23 minutes.

“I knew if I at least maintain little bit, just play at least similar as I was playing last week, I knew it’s going to be difficult for her to repeatwhat she played last week,” Pliskova said. “I think she really played great.That was about it today. It was more about like staying positive, staying in there. I knew I’m going to have some chances, which I did. Not the best level today from myself, but it is what it is. I think in Grand Slam it’s always like one match is better, one is worse. Important is that I’m through.”

Next, Pliskova will face her quarantine practice partner, fellow Czech Karolina Muchova. The 25th-seed disposed of the lone remaining German in the women’s draw, No. 233 Mona Barthel, 6-4, 6-1 in 70 minutes, in back of 24 winners and five service breaks.

Mertens winning streak extends to 7

World No. 20 Elise Mertens of Belgium remained undefeated in 2021 as she won her seventh straight, 7-6 (8), 6-1, over No. 94 Zhu Lin of China. The 18th-seeded Mertens, whose best result at the Australian Open was a semifinal finish in 2018, was aided by 18 winners and won 50 percent of her return points against Zhu. Next, Mertens will play No. 11 seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland in the third round.

“I think the first set was really tight, how she got to the ball,” Mertens said during her post-match press conference. “I was really happy just to get it done in two sets and especially win the first one.”

Throughout Bencic’s 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 win over 37th-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, it was all about staying alive. Their two hour and 36-minute match had nothing to do with the numbers – which reflected poorly for both the winner and loser, 102 total unforced errors – and everything to do with the heart. Bencic will take a modest two-match winning streak into her match with Mertens.

“I definitely think she’s a very consistent and solid player,” said Bencic after her win. “I played her in juniors, but not in WTA yet. I’m looking forward to the match. I will definitely relax my mind today and tomorrow and just get back focusing tomorrow evening and try to find a tactic against her and a game plan.”

Around Melbourne Park

• No. 60 Shelby Rogers of the United States is through to the third round without dropping a set after beating Serbian qualifier Olga Danilovic, 6-2, 6-3, in 69 minutes. Rogers, who lost to Danilovic back in 2019 in Houston, hit 18 winners and broke her 183rd-ranked opponent five times. She’s the tournament leader with 17 service aces. Next, she will face No. 21 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who rallied to beat No. 58 Heather Watson of Great Britain, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2, in two hours and four minutes behind 10 aces and 46 winners.

• No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States needed just 49 minutes to beat Madison Brengle, 6-1, 6-2, thanks to hitting 29 winners, controlling the net and converting four of six break-point opportunities against the 83rd-ranked American. Next, Brady will face 104th-ranked Slovenian qualifier Kaja Juvan, who ended the record-breaking run of Mayar Sherif from Egypt. The 131st-ranked Sherif, who earlier this week became the first Egyptian woman to win a Grand Slam main draw match, lost to Juvan, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3, in two hours and 36 minutes. It’s the first time Juvan has reached the third round of a major.

• Unseeded Jessica Pegula of the United States needed just 47 minutes to defeat Australian favorite Samantha Stosur, 6-0, 6-1, on Margaret Court Arena. The 64th-ranked Pegula hit 20 winners against the 112th-ranked Stosur in advancing to play No. 50 Kristina Mladenovic. The Frenchwoman advanced over No 73 Nao Hibino of Japan, 7-5, 6-1.

Thursday’s results

Friday’s order of play

News & noteworthy

• No. 1 doubles seeds Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic defeated  Destanee Aaiva and Astra Sharma, both of Australia, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, in one hour and 59 minutes to advance to the second round.

• The draw for the mixed doubles was revealed on Thursday.

By the numbers

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was asked during her press conference if she could describe what she thought having the Australian Open with fans tells the rest of the world about hope. She said:

“As a playing group, as the WTA and the ATP as well, the ITF obviously with the Australian Open, I think we’ve put a lot of trust in all of the professionals down here to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and know they can run a tournament safely. I think that’s a real bonus for us to be able to have that connection with the fans, to be able to share these moments with them as well.

“I think that’s a really positive thing. We just have to know we’ve put the trust in the right people to make the right decisions, and ultimately make it an experience that everyone is going to remember for the right reasons.”