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Marathon runners have often said, “It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you cross the finish line that matters.”

Nothing has been more true for Anett Kontaveit, who ended the 2021 season with four WTA titles and as a Top 10 player—a far cry from her middle-of-the pack start after a year of glittering breakthroughs.

Kontaveit, a Top 30 mainstay since 2018, was used to flying under the radar. Her name was recognized as a potential landmine in any draw, but she often lacked the consistency and mentality to challenge the top names for the biggest titles.

"I was working so hard and I kept losing to Top 10 players consistently," Kontaveit told WTA Insider in November. "I felt like I was doing well, I was playing really good tennis, and I was just falling short to these really good players.

“At some point I was thinking, 'OK, maybe I'm just not meant to beat them or something.' This demotivating thought went into my head.”

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But instead of staying in her proverbial lane, Kontaveit took matters into her own hands. It took parting ways with longtime coach Nigel Sears in April, and a demoralizing five-match losing streak across June through August, to drive home the need for change.

Her hire of Dmitry Tursunov, the former coach of Aryna Sabalenka, in August turned heads—and signaled her intent.

"I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing for some time," Kontaveit recalled. “With Dmitry joining the team, I feel like I'm doing the right thing again.

"It's just brought this new energy and a little bit more self-belief to my game. It taught me how to be a little bit more positive."

Tursunov, a former ATP Top 20 player, had previously guided big-hitting Sabalenka into the Top 10. But with Kontaveit, Tursunov focused not on changing the 25-year-old’s playing style but her mentality: Kontaveit might not always be able to hit her opponents off the court, but the goal was for her to have the confidence to believe that she could. And for much of 2021, she did.

The last few months have really showed me that I can play really well, I can beat great players consistently. I think I sort of have this self-belief now. Anett Kontaveit

"She's a bit more aggressive, and I think that's a kind of built-in trait. I felt she has this internal aggression in her game, suppressed in some way and that's what I felt she should tap into," Tursunov told Tennis.com. "I wanted to bring that aggressive Anett on court more, and just work on the things that can give her the confidence to be aggressive.

"If you try to be aggressive but don't have anything that supports it, you just get erratic and hit balls into the back fence."

One week after starting her trial with Tursunov, Kontaveit was staring down the barrel of her sixth defeat in a row as she dropped a 1-6 set to home favorite Lauren Davis in Cleveland. But something in her newfound self-belief clicked, and she went on to win the next 12 games in a row to complete a confidence-boosting comeback.

That moment of grit and determination would turn out to be the turning point. Kontaveit set off into her best tennis of the year, winning her next 12 of 13 matches, capturing two titles along the way at the WTA 250 in Cleveland and 500-level in Ostrava. At the latter, Kontaveit didn’t drop a set as she took down the likes of Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova, Paula Badosa and Maria Sakkari.

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From being out of the conversation for most of the year, during the fall swing Kontaveit elevated herself into the one to beat. Her steady marathon suddenly became a sprint as the 25-year-old now had a sliver of a chance to claim a spot at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara—all it would take was the best sustained performance of her life, and to win every tournament she played for the rest of the season.

And against the odds, Kontaveit pulled it off, snatching the last qualifying spot on her way to the final.

Ranked No. 30 in August, by the end of the season the Estonian had racked up 48 wins to her name, the joint-most of anyone on tour (also Ons Jabeur). She made her long awaited breakthrough into the WTA’s Top 10, sitting at World No. 7.

“I feel like the last few months have really showed me that I can play really well, I can beat great players consistently. I think I sort of have this self-belief now,” she said. “When I came here [to Guadalajara], of course, I had nothing to lose. Every time I step on the court, I still think I can win the match.”

If Kontaveit can maintain the momentum—and that new self-belief—she’s well poised to fly out of the blocks in 2022. With fewer points to defend in the first half of the season, the Estonian will be fighting for the chance to keep racing up the rankings.