BRISBANE, Australia - Her combination of relentless power and pinpoint accuracy as lethal as it was all week, Kaia Kanepi put the finishing touches on a career week on Saturday night, outdoing Daniela Hantuchova to take home her very first Premier-level WTA title at the Brisbane International.
The week didn't start so smoothly for Kanepi. Taking on Alexandra Panova, a No.121-ranked Russian qualifier, Kanepi had to battle more than two hours to survive, 75 36 62, winning just five more points in the match (94 to 89).
Kanepi's game lifted in a big way after surviving that first round scare, and she went on a tear against seeded players in her next three rounds - she routed No.7 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round, 60 63, closed out No.2 seed Andrea Petkovic in the quarterfinals, 61 76(7), then pulled off another rout in the semis, crushing No.3 seed Francesca Schiavone, 63 60.
Having largely been considered an unpredictable quantity, Kanepi spoke after her semifinal about improving her consistency and avoiding letdowns.
"In previous years I've been a surprise player - I was able to beat higher ranked players, but then maybe lose to lower ranked players," the 26-year-old said. "Now I'm playing more stable, not making as many errors. I'm beating top players more consistently. Hopefully I can get that ranking myself one day."
There was no letdown whatsoever for the No.34-ranked Kanepi in the final. She had never beaten Hantuchova in three career meetings, but this time her huge game was on target. From 1-2 she won nine straight games for a seemingly insurmountable 62 40 lead; Hantuchova's fighting spirit prolonged the match at the end, as she won an easy service game to make it 62 41, then pushed the last two games to multiple deuces, even staving off three match points. But Kanepi kept the pressure on and closed out the No.24-ranked Slovak, 62 61.
"I couldn't stop smiling after the match," Kanepi said. "I don't think I've really realized what I've done, how well I've played, who I've beaten and the scores. I've really enjoyed winning such a big tournament. It was just my week, but I have to be ready, because history has shown nothing comes easy for me."
Kanepi elaborated on the last comment: "Before the US Open I had two months off because of my Achilles. I did a lot of different practice and rehab and I was very hungry to play tennis when I went to the US Open. Maybe that little break gave me some extra power to play well now, to make some changes."
Last year it was a No.34-ranked Petra Kvitova who won Brisbane, then went on to win her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and finish the year No.2. Kanepi was asked if there might be a big step for her too. "Well, if I'm playing like this, I think I can," she said. "I have to work hard, play consistently and win. We will see at the end of the year if I did the same thing as Petra or not."
Kanepi claimed her second WTA title, her first coming at the International-level clay court stop in Palermo in 2010. She is now 2-3 in finals, Hantuchova 4-9.
"When she's on like this it's really hard to do anything," Hantuchova said. "I felt I played a great match from the start 'til the end, but she was better in all the departments of the game and really deserved to win. I tried to find a way...
"If Kaia can do this week in week out, she can be in the Top 10 very soon."
Both finalists are projected to move up on the new rankings, Hantuchova No.24 to No.21 and Kanepi No.34 to No.26 (for Kanepi it's particularly significant given the new rankings determine the Australian Open seeds).
The doubles final saw No.4-seeded Spanish duo Nuria Llagostera Vives and Arantxa Parra Santonja edge Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears, 76(2) 76(2). The unseeded American duo led 5-2 in both sets but the Spaniards clawed back each time, and eventually won their third and biggest WTA title together (their first two came at International-level clay court events).
"It's our first Premier event together, so we couldn't have started the year better," Llagostera Vives said. "I think today we waited too much. We weren't so consistent at the start, missing some golden points, which make a difference. But we had a very good attitude and never gave up. That's why we won."
"We're not only looking forward to the Olympics, we're going for a medal," Parra Santonja said. "We know each other well and have a very good relationship. That helps during a match so we can support each other and give each other confidence. And Nuria is just a great player - not just doubles, but singles too."
Llagostera Vives now has 15 WTA doubles to her name, Parra Santonja five.