Samsonova Wins Battle Of Big Hitters Over Kanepi At Citi Open

Liudmila Samsonova (photo: Richard Kessler/Citi Open)

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The 10th edition final of the WTA Citi Open lived up to its billing of big-hitting tennis, between Liudmila Samsonova and Kaia Kanepi at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington, D.C. Sunday afternoon.

Under partly cloudy conditions and with the Stadium on-court temperature eclipsing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in which both players did their best to stay hydrated while applying ice towels during changeovers, it was the 60th-ranked Samsonova who did the best job of hitting big in the clutch and remained focused, no matter whether she played from behind or ahead.

Samsonova struck 10 aces and hit 27 winners overall en route to beating No. 37 Kanepi, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, in an hour and 46 minutes to lift her second career WTA trophy. Her first came a year ago in Berlin. It was Samsonova’s 14th career win over a Top 50 player, while Kanepi’s record in WTA finals dropped to 4-6 – including 1-6 on hard courts.

“I think it was the hardest match of the week, because Kaia was playing amazing,” Samsonova said during her post-match press conference. “She was serving so well.

“I had some troubles to find the solution on the return. It was a tough mental game today, and I’m so happy that I found the solutions.”

Samsonova, a 23-year-old Russian who moved to Italy as a child to train, defeated an impressive roll-call of players this week just to reach the final against Kanepi from Estonia. Both were making their tournament debuts although, arguably, Samsonova’s biggest challenge was in obtaining a visa to enter the U.S. because her old one expired last month. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that she found out she would be allowed to travel to Washington, D.C. and play this week.

“It’s amazing – I didn’t expect it at all,” Samsonova said. “It’s like a dream, because I was practicing one month. I had some troubles off the court. I changed my team, so it was not an easy decision. I was not able to play Wimbledon. It was very tough for me.

“So, yeah, I’m so happy about this week. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

Prior to her arrival, Samsonova took a 41-day respite from the WTA Tour due to the Russia ban imposed by Wimbledon. Her last match was June 19 in Germany. Despite a lack of match play, she used the time wisely and worked in practice on different facets of her game like her serve, which clocked out at 117 mph against Kanepi.

Since returning, Samosonova earned victories over No. 30 Elise Mertens, No. 69 Ajla Tomljanovic, No. 10 Emma Raducanu (the tournament’s second seed) and No. 95 Wang Xiyu en route to Sunday’s final against the 37-year-old Kanepi, a former World No. 15, who was the Citi Open’s highest remaining seed at No. 6 after all the others fell in the earlier rounds and had led the tournament with 30 aces coming into the final.

The title bout between Samsonova and Kanepi, a pair of women each standing 5-foot-11, matched power against power. In their only other meeting before Sunday, last year in the first round of Wimbledon, it was Samsonova who prevailed 6-4, 6-2. This time, Samsonova, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 25 earlier this year, wrapped up a championship week in which her quarterfinal victory over the reigning US Open champion Raducanu Friday night represented her second career Top 10 win.

Samsonova took advantage of a trio of service breaks against Kanepi – in the seventh and ninth games of the second set and in the eighth game of the third set – that contributed significantly to her title victory. She converted three of four break-point opportunities overall, overcame 18 unforced errors and outpointed Kanepi 78-65. Although Kanepi hit five aces and produced 16 winners, her 19 unforced errors were just too much for her to overcome.

At the beginning, Kanepi looked as if she was going to end her nine-year title drought after she won the 33-minute opening set with a break of Samsonova. She didn’t face any break points through 3-all in the second set and was a break point from leading 6-4, 4-2. However, Samsonova fought off the break, held, and then broke Kanepi after she forced an error. The Russian went on to win the last four games of the second set to level the final. A shift in the tenor and momentum of the championship match was evident.

“I think the key was to find a solution on the return, how to return her serve,” Samsonova suggested. “That was the key. Because we were playing like game by game. We were winning our serve.

“So, that’s it. I think I had to find a way to be aggressive on her serve and to break it.”

In the final set, Kanepi began to wilt after she struck a double fault and hit three unforced errors, which gave Samsonova a love break and an insurmountable 5-3 lead. She consolidated the break in her final service game, aided by her 10th ace. Samsonova closed out the victory after Kanepi hit a second shot backhand well wide. The two competitors, each chasing after the same prize and reward, shared a polite handshake at the net.

Despite the title loss, Kanepi called her week in the nation’s capital city “amazing.”

“I enjoyed being in Washington and playing here,” she said in press an hour after the title match ended. “Today’s match was tough. I think she served better than me today, and maybe that was the key.”

With an eight-year gap since her last singles final, the 37-year-old Estonian could be forgiven for being a tad disappointed with the final outcome. Still, she remained upbeat afterward, both in accepting her runner-up plate during the trophy ceremony and in talking with the media.

“No, it makes me really happy,” she said, smiling. “I think it’s better to lose in the final than in the first round.

“So, yeah, overall, I think the week was very good. It’s also good to get matches here in U.S. before [the] US Open.”

Kanepi, who is ranked in the Top 40 for the first time since 2014, said staying healthy and playing well is more important to her than her ranking.

“Ranking really doesn’t matter at this stage anymore,” she said.

As someone who has always taken the road less traveled – it’s in her life blood and genes, coming from Estonia and especially after having attended professional driver school in neighboring Finland – Kanepi said she is finding enjoyment in playing this season. She’s always a feared opponent in major tournaments. Her quarterfinal run at the Australian Open earlier in the year plus reaching the Washington, D.C. final is a reflection of this philosophy.

“When I play well and get good matches, then tennis is still enjoyable to me.”

Around the Citi Open

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who was eliminated from the Citi Open in the quarterfinal round by Chinese lucky loser Wang Xiyu Friday night, was ruled out of the National Bank Open in Toronto due to visa issues. The tournament begins Monday.

The three-time US Open finalist will miss out on one of the biggest warmup events after already being forced to miss Wimbledon earlier this summer due to the All England Club’s ban of players from Russia and Belarus in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Azarenka, who recently turned 33, is a three-time semifinalist in Canada. She broke the news of her predicament on social media Sunday morning.

“It’s very sad to miss one of my favorite tournaments,” wrote Azarenka. “I love to play in Canada with great fans and a place where I made many friends over the years.”

The former World No. 1 aims to return next week at the Western & Southern Open in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio, a tournament she’s won twice.

By the numbers

Liudmila Samsonova became the 10th different Citi Open women’s champion in the 10th edition of the tournament. The WTA 250 returned this year after a two-year absence due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The previous women’s champions by year: Nadia Petrova (2011), Magdaléna Rybáriková (2012, 2013), Svetlanta Kuznetsova (2014, 2018), Sloane Stephens (2015), Yamuna Wickmayer (2016), Ekaterina Makarova (2017), Jessica Pegula (2019).

“Quotable …”

“I took over [the Citi Open] with a fan’s perspective coming here for many years and seeing all the things I wished were a certain way. We have worked really hard with an amazing team of people  to try to make them that way. 

“We love the fan reaction. I love the player reaction. I have been watching players in press, and I think four or five of them have used words ‘we love the vibe of this tournament,’ totally independently.

“I love that they love the vibe. I love that they love our city. That’s really good. Our sponsors are really happy. Endless ones are coming back saying we want to lock in long-term deals with you. So that’s really good.”

Mark Ein, Citi Open Chairman, after the women’s final, speaking on the state of the Citi Open.