Tennis

Washington | Kanepi to take on Samsonova in Sunday final

Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi swept past Daria Saville from Australia, 6-3 6-1, to reach the final of the Citi Open in Washington, DC, on Saturday, where she will play Liudmila Samsonova from Russia for the title, who came through her semi-final, 6-1 6-1, against China’s lucky loser Wang Xiyu.

I never thought I would make quarters in Australia. I thought, ‘It’s not just my place’. But I played really well, and then I continued playing well. I didn’t actually put any pressure on myself to achieve something special. Kaia Kanepi

In her first WTA final since a 2021 Australian Open tuneup at Melbourne, Kanepi needed only 73 minutes to dispatch Saville, who was in her first WTA Last 4 since 2018 at Acapulco, while Samsonova took just 67 to see off Wang.

“I played my best match,” Kanepi said, who won her only WTA hardcourt title at Brisbane in 2012. “Everything was very smooth for me. I hit a lot of lines.

“It’s tough to do it every day, so I think today was a good day for me.”

The 37-year used easy power to thwart Saville, who called the trainer twice to work on her lower back, and grew more frustrated by Kanepi’s consistent winners as the match progressed.

In 2016, the Estonian was hampered by the Epstein-Barr virus and plantar fasciitis in both feet, and took an extended break from the tour, during which she attended a professional driving school in Finland to learn how to navigate icy roads and indulge her passion for driving fast cars.

She has a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X in her garage.

“I have this kind of car that I can do the drifting, which I like,” Kanepi said with a smile. “I don’t really like going fast.”

Despite struggling with injuries throughout her career, Kanepi is still her country’s most successful player, with a penchant for beating top players at major events.

While she has not reached a final since Brussels 2013, the 6th seed has made it into her 5th in a career that began in 1999, and the key to her recent success is to take her time.

She is now an early arrival at tournaments so she can acclimatise, while she takes more rest between events to recover.

Kanepi’s résumé is distinguished, having becoming the first Estonian to make it into the Top 20 in 2009 and reaching a career high ranking of 15 in 2012.

She is feared on tour as the most dangerous of floaters to top players, and reached the 5th quarter-final of her career in January at the Australian Open, a milestone that set the tone for her year, with her 19-10 match record the most wins she has had since 2013.

“I never thought I would make quarters in Australia,” Kanepi reflected. “I thought, ‘It’s not just my place’.

“But I played really well, and then I continued playing well. I didn’t actually put any pressure on myself to achieve something special.”

Now ranked 37, one spot for every year of her age, Kanepi found herself to be the last seed standing in the semi-finals, battling through the draw with a couple of 3-setters in the horrendous heat, although she did not face anyone ranked higher than No 71.

She has looked disciplined throughout and, in Saturday’s first semi-final, Kanepi stormed past Saville to make her first final since Melbourne’s Gippsland Trophy in February of last year.

Producing a blistering display of pristine power, the Estonian finished with 18 winners to just 5 unforced errors, and won 80 percent of her first-service points.

Despite the loss, Saville, a former Top 20 Aussie, has mounted a superb come-back after Achilles tendon surgery in February of 2021, rising from a low of No 627 in February to her current position at 88 in just 6 months.

On Saturday, Saville clutched at her lower back during the 4-2 game, and took a mid-game medical time-out, but returned to continue play.

Kanepi, though, used her thumping groundstrokes to hit lines with precision throughout the remainder of the match, and she won 8 of the last 9 games to book her spot in the final.

Liudmila Samsonova made short work of Wang Xiyu Wang to set up a final meeting with Kaia Kanepi on Sunday

© Patrick Smith/Getty Images

At No 60, Samsonova is her highest-ranked opponent of the week, after the Russian defeated World No 10 Emma Raducanu, No 30 Elise Mertens and No 69 Ajla Tomljanovic before her semi-final on Saturday, when she trounced No 95 Wang.

Like Kanepi, Samsonova showed off her big-hitting game to its best effect, with 17 winners to only 5 unforced errors, while 21-year old Wang, who was playing in her second career WTA semi-final, matched the Russian with 4 aces, but she was undone by 16 unforced errors.

Samsonova did not face a break point until the very last game, after she saw 2 match points erased by Wang, but she saved it with a forehand winner, and then used that same shot again to force an error from the Chinese on her 3rd match point.

“It’s amazing — I didn’t expect this,” said Samsonova, who was excluded from Wimbledon. “I came through after one month of preparation. It was a lot, ohhh, a lot of hard work. We were focusing on everything.”

The 23-year-old Russian has spent most of her life in Italy, and is in her second singles final in as many years, which will pit power against power.

Both women stand 5-foot-11 tall, although the lankier Samsonova has more reach than Kanepi, as well as a win over the Estonian under her belt, in straight sets at Wimbledon last year.

Samsonova represented Italy until 2018, when she switched to play under her native Russian flag, and competing in a bigger pool of tennis talent has relieved pressure, allowing her to flourish.

“Kaia, I like her game. She plays well,” said Samsonova, who won her only prior WTA final at last year’s German Open in Berlin. “I think it will be a match where I have to focus a lot, because whoever will do the first shots better, I think, will manage the game.

“Of course, experience makes a difference. But I think I have a little bit of experience now, too.”

Samsonova has a 1-0 head-to-head lead over Kanepi, having triumphed in their first-round match at Wimbledon last year.

Defending Citi Open singles champion Jessica Pegula may have lost her chance to repeat earlier this week, but she did not leave Washington empty-handed as he 28-year-old American took home the doubles title on Saturday with her Kiwi partner Erin Routliffe with a 6-3 5-7 [12-10] win over Russian Anna Kalinskaya & Catherine McNally from the US.

It is the 3rd tour-level doubles title of Pegula’s career, and her second of 2022 after winning in Qatar in February with Coco Gauff, while it is Routliffe’s 2nd career trophy.

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