OEIRAS, Portugal - The life of a professional tennis player is full of new experiences around every corner, and for Kaia Kanepi that's exactly the case this week, as she plays a tournament as defending champion for the very first time - and she's playing very well, too. On Wednesday the Estonian beat No.5 seed Sorana Cirstea in straight sets to make it into the quarterfinals of the Portugal Open.
A year ago Kanepi won her third WTA title at this tournament, but this is the first time she's back at a WTA event as defending champion - her first two titles came at Palermo in 2010 and Brisbane last January, and she wasn't able to play either event the next year, due to a nagging Achilles injury.
"I never played a tournament as a defending champion before this, but right now I'm trying not to feel any different," Kanepi said. "I'm not worrying about my legs or my game or defending any points, I just want to get back to playing well again. And I'm happy to be in the quarterfinals now, actually."
After beating Kristina Mladenovic in the first round, 64 63, Kanepi stepped it up against another young gun in the second round, never losing serve and breaking serve five times to defeat Cirstea, 61 62.
"I tried to play aggressive and not give her much time to hit her shots," Kanepi said. "I didn't make many mistakes either - I was quite solid. I really enjoy playing here and feel good when I'm playing here. It's a good court and they have good balls, and I've played really well my last two matches."
The other three seeds in action all moved on: No.3 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rallied from 3-1 down in the first set and 5-2 down in the second to beat Spanish qualifier Estrella Cabeza Candela, 63 76(4); No.4 seed Carla Suárez Navarro beat Yanina Wickmayer, 64 63; and No.7 seed Elena Vesnina came from 3-0 down in the first set and 4-1 down in the second set to beat Monica Niculescu, 64 64.
Other winners earlier on in the day were near-Top 50 player Romina Oprandi, who beat Peng Shuai, 61 63; near-Top 100 player Monica Puig, who reached her first WTA quarterfinal with a 63 62 victory over Francesca Schiavone; and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who defeated Galina Voskoboeva, 64 64.
"I felt I was a little bit lazy at the start of this match - it was all right, but I'll have to play better next match," Kuznetsova said. "The court felt so slow today but I'm happy I made it through anyway."
Next up for Kuznetsova is Oprandi. Kuznetsova has beaten Oprandi in all three of their previous meetings, though Oprandi was very close to winning their only clay court meeting back in 2006.
"I remember I was match point down - it was in Rome," Kuznetsova said about the Swiss. "She's a very good player. She's not like everyone else. She plays a very different game and doesn't give you any rhythm. She's a little bit unpredictable. I expect a tough battle when we play each other tomorrow."
Puig, a Puerto Rican teenager who actually made the main draw as a lucky loser, was thrilled with her first WTA quarterfinal. "My mom always told me things happen for a reason - so there was a reason I lost in the last round of qualies," she said. "I think it was to learn from that experience then get another chance to get into the main draw and show what I'm capable of. It's just been amazing, and I don't want to stop here, I want to keep going. I've had a few heartbreaking losses this year to Kerber and Venus, and to beat Goerges and Schiavone here is just amazing. Those losses taught me how to maintain a lead when I'm playing a top player. I've done it twice in a row now so I can see I'm improving."
And with her mom not with her this week, there's another thing she has been improving on here.
"I have a routine already," Puig added. "When I get back to the hotel I make my drinks right away, my vitamins are all ready, I wash my clothes right away so I don't accumulate a big pile of them - it's a lot of things to do every day, but it really shows me I can be responsible and take care of these things.
"Now I know what my mom goes through, but double!"