PARIS—At 9:25 this morning, on Court Three at Roland Garros, 25th-seeded Anett Kontaveit tranquilly hit one practice serve after another to her coach, Glenn Schaap. As the left-handed Schaap rolled back returns, Kontaveit calmly laced groundstrokes into corners.
Just over two hours later, on the same court, all appeared on course for the promising Estonian as Kontaveit won the first set 6-1 over Madison Brengle, an American ranked No. 101 in the world.
For all the possibilities that attend the opening matchup at a major, on this Sunday morning it also smacked of a friendly weekend squabble seen at clubs and parks everywhere, pitting the young, ascending and powerful 22-year-old Kontaveit versus the seasoned and crafty 28-year-old Brengle.
And then, as can happen in these matchups regardless of playing level, morning became electric—or, more accurately, eccentric.
Kontaveit is a player to watch. At the Australian Open, she reached the round of 16, a run highlighted by a third round win over Roland Garros holder Jelena Ostapenko. Her clay season has been outstanding—reaching the semis at Madrid and Rome, efforts that include wins over Venus Williams (twice), Caroline Wozniacki, ’09 Roland Garros champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and CoCo Vandeweghe.
WATCH—Match point from Kontaveit's win over Brengle at the French Open:
At her best, Kontaveit is a descendant of the woman who won this title ten years ago, Ana Ivanovic. A rangy 5’9”, Kontaveit is forceful off both sides, but with more margin than the flat-hitting Ivanovic. Able to strike with pace, depth and even the occasional rolling angled forehand, versus Brengle it only seemed a matter of time before Kontaveit landed the knockout punch that would let her run away with the match.
Hand it to Brengle. From a technical standpoint, her only smooth shot is a reasonable, forceful two-handed backhand—emphasis on reasonable. The forehand is a mélange of intermittent flat, semi-moonball and occasional sidespin. The serve is thrown in like a pancake, the second one often less than 80 miles per hour (granted, some of these serve woes might be the result of an injury Brengle believes was caused by what proved an extremely painful series of blood-testing procedures, triggering her suing the ITF and WTA).
But Brengle persisted. Serving at 1-2, 30-40, she struck a fine backhand to level the game and hold. With Kontaveit serving at 3-3, 40-15, Brengle broke. For all Kontaveit’s efforts to dictate play, Brengle proved adept at cajoling errors and finding more nooks and crannies than you’d see in a toasted English muffin. Kontaveit floundered, spraying balls with aerosol can-like imprecision and even trying several ill-informed drop shots. Indeed, as Brengle took the second set 6-4 to level the match, this was experience versus youth at its finest.
And yet it remained hard to believe Brengle could actually win the match. Despite opening the third set with a double-fault, Kontaveit began to slowly tighten the noose, taking the first games. Even then, though, Brengle won the next two—at which point Kontaveit broke at love to close it out in a rather labored 102 minutes, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.
At the 2015 US Open, Kontaveit, still just 19 years old, came out of nowhere to reach the round of 16. But now having racked up her share of results, Kontaveit occupies a new intersection—the one where achievement comes right up against potential.
On her website, Kontaveit says that, “a real Estonian has to participate in the dance or song celebration festival at least once a life.” To Brengle’s credit, the music today was rather atonal. Given Kontaveit’s skills, it will be fascinating to see what kind of tunes she will continue to compose this year at Roland Garros.
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