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Giant-killer Kanepi smothers defending Australian Open champion Kenin
Based on how it all went, you’d think the 65th-ranked Estonian was the one who’d won this title 12 months ago.
Published Feb 11, 2021
The temptation when defining disruption in tennis is to think it’s primarily the province of the clever; that an opponent’s game can be broken up with variations in spin, pace, placement, court positioning. Call this approach a spider’s web, propelled largely by instilling doubt. This was what Hsieh Su-wei did to beat Bianca Andreescu yesterday.
But disruption takes many forms. There is also the weapon of knowledge, of obviously demonstrated power, placement, and accuracy. Players who do this are said to take the racquet out of the opponent’s hands. Why weave when you can stomp?
Kaia Kanepi executed that premise to perfection on Thursday, smothering defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin 6-3, 6-2, in just 64 minutes.
Long known as a giant killer—this was Kanepi’s eighth win over a top tenner at a major—the 35-year-old Estonian was in thorough command from the start of this second-round match. Much in the manner of such forceful baseliners as Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, Kanepi dispensed one flat, deep drive after another. Repeatedly pinned, Kenin was unable all match long to even attempt her customary mix of crisp groundstrokes, adroit redirection, touch, or any other of her nimble gambits. As boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
“She played really well,” said Kenin. “She came up with some good shots. She obviously had a good plan against me. I just couldn't execute my shots.”
Even at the closing stages, often the moment when underdogs blink, Kanepi was unwavering. Serving in the second set at 5-2, 15-30, she hit three straight aces, a trio of exclamation points that underscored how well her delivery was all match long. Kanepi struck 10 aces, fought off all seven break points she faced, and won a sparkling 61 percent of her second-serve points (50 percent is considered a fine effort).
“I like when I serve good, then it's a big advantage,” said Kanepi. “But you never know, it doesn't happen every day. So actually I do like a bit slower conditions. But today the fast conditions worked very well for me.”
Based on how it all went, you’d think the 65th-ranked Kanepi was the one who’d won this title 12 months ago. Then again, this last year has hardly given Kenin the chance to accumulate the champion’s experience, confidence and aura that usually follow a run to a major. Since her victory in Melbourne last January, Kenin has only played nine tournaments, less than half a typical workload. Added to this is the extraordinary stress of life, family, work and travel amid an unprecedented global pandemic, an impact currently hard for anyone to even put into words.
“I couldn't really handle the pressure,” said Kenin. “I'm not obviously used to this, so right now 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.”
Meanwhile, Kanepi, ranked as high as No. 15 back in 2012, reached the final at a tune-up tournament last week, along the way earning wins over a wide range of stylists, including powerful Aryna Sabalenka, adroit Daria Kasatkina and versatile Karolina Muchova.
It’s often been said that anyone in the Top 100 can beat anyone. The notion of parity appears even more viable than ever at this year’s Australian Open. Everything from the respective pressures Kenin and Kanepi felt prior to today’s match, to the diminished value of the last year’s results, has dramatically altered tennis’ traditional competitive hierarchy. Rankings? Seeds? Contenders? Champions? Spoilers? Floaters? Veterans? Newcomers? Terms all currently devalued.
Far beyond mere tennis strategies and tactics, the world we currently occupy is unquestionably the biggest disruptor of them all.