Kaia Kanepi holds the key to Week 1 of the Australian Open
Is Kaia Kanepi turning out to be the Rosetta Stone of the 2021 Australian Open? The soft-spoken Estonian ended one contender's hopes on Day 4, when she dismantled defending champion Sofia Kenin in a 6-3, 6-2 victory. The win was Kanepi's second Top 10 win in 10 days, having ended No.7 Aryna Sabalenka's 15-match winning streak en route to the Gippsland Trophy final last week. These results come off a wave of momentum Kanepi generated at the end of 2020, when she dropped down to play the ITF Circuit and won back-to-back titles to end the year.
Kanepi has now won 16 of her past 17 matches across all levels and she looks prime to make her mark on the second week of the Australian Open, the one major in which she has not reached a quarterfinal. Kanepi's locker room reputation as a Slam seed-slayer is well documented. Of her 13 Top 10 wins, eight have come at majors.
So why now? Why is Kanepi looking more comfortable than she ever has in Melbourne?
"I think coming here from pre-season and then long trip I haven't felt physically that great," Kanepi said, when asked about her past struggles in Melbourne. "Also in Melbourne, the weather changes a lot and it's tougher to get used to the conditions if I haven't been in Melbourne for a longer time.
"But this year I think coming here for two weeks, first in quarantine and then the warm-up tournament was also in Melbourne, I think that's what helped me."
Aryna Sabalenka resets, refocuses and relaxes
The World No.7's loss to Kanepi in the second round of the Gippsland Trophy last week might have been the best preparation for the Australian Open. Riding a three-tournament, 15-match winning streak, Sabalenka was out-hit by Kanepi, losing 6-1, 2-6, 6-1. As a result, Sabalenka's hot hand has flown under the radar in Week 1, allowing the 22-year-old to simply focus on the work.
"I think it a good lesson for me when I lost against Kanepi," Sabalenka said. "Kind of put me back in the reality. Makes me work a little bit more.
"That's why I already won two matches here, because I understand that everything can happen again. I was saying that every day is a new day [but] when you're winning, you kind of have this feeling that it's really tough to lose."
As Sabalenka tries to make her first Slam quarterfinal - she faces Ann Li in the third round and could face Serena Williams in the Round of 16 - the Belarusian says she's diffusing the pressure by staying away from Melbourne Park.
"I'm trying to stay less on-site, to not put this pressure on myself," she said. "It's a lot of people here. Even if you don't want to put this pressure, the situation is putting on the pressure.
"I'm trying to stay more in the hotel, have a nice walk there in the evening, cook for myself, kind of switch off. That helps me to stay in the moment and kind of be on the Grand Slam, but at the same time understand that this is just another tournament."
Naomi Osaka's Mutual Admiration Society
The World No.3's constant refrain is that she has no friends on tour, but the press conference after her second-round win over Caroline Garcia betrayed her. Midway through the English portion of Osaka's press conference, her pal Iga Swiatek dropped in to say hello. Some inside-joke banter about flip-flops ensued:
Osaka faces No.27 seed Ons Jabeur in the third round, and the match will be their first since meeting and playing in the 2015 WTA Rising Stars competition in Singapore. Osaka has spoken openly about how Jabeur's friendliness and sense of humor during that otherwise nerve-wracking week was the most memorable thing about the competition, which she ultimately won.
"I remember she was so shy, she didn't even talk," Osaka said. "I always tried to throw jokes all the time and she was laughing. She is such a nice person and she hasn't changed a bit, which I admire. She's someone who has won Grand Slams and she's in the top players and she always says hi. I even asked her to sign me on her soccer team. I'm just waiting for the contract.
"I don't think I have that much jurisdiction, but she's super talented in everything she does, so I'm sure if she really wanted to go for it, she could.
"I always felt like watching her, she's a player that can do anything, and I always felt like she should be where she is now and even higher. For me, I think it's really nice to see her doing well.
"I hope that she continues to do well, because for me I feel like she's one of those people that you just love to see grow. I just really like her and her personality. I think it's really good for the game."
First-timer in Rod Laver Arena😻❤️— Karolina Muchova (@karomuchova7) January 21, 2021
Sooo BEAUTIFUL!!! pic.twitter.com/3lcoeHFClS
Karolina vs. Karolina
Karolina Pliskova and Karolina Muchova, good friends and practice partners during quarantine, face off in the third round. So which is the more "phlegmatic" Karolina? Pliskova weighs in:
"We are both kind of like that. That's very tough. I think still she's going to be more. In the end, I try to really take at least sometimes some things seriously in the practice [laughs]. I mean, it's not like she would not try. I think she's more relaxed definitely than me.
17: Aces for Shelby Rogers, the most through two rounds. Rogers also leads all remaining players in unreturned first serves (63%) and first-serve points won (86%).
23: Double faults for Belinda Bencic, who has come through two tough three-set matches.
11: Second Serve points lost by Jennifer Brady. The American has won 70% of her second serve points.
1: Number of times Elina Svitolina's serve has been broken through two matches, both straight-set wins over Marie Bouzkova and Coco Gauff.
2: Second round matches that clocked in at 2 hours and 39 minutes: Belinda Bencic's 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Kaja Juvan's 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 win over Mayar Sherif.
11: Seeds remaining in the top half of the draw.
9: Seeds remaining in the bottom half of the draw.
2: Teenagers into the third round: Iga Swiatek and Anastasia Potapova.
Hsieh Su-Wei reflects on why she's had a late-blooming career:
"In Taiwan, I come from a very small place, and it's a very difficult situation in Taiwan to find a practice, to have a professional tennis coach and hitting partner, fitness coach. All the stuff has become very tough.
"Because I was in Japan for almost three years and I have a club, I have somewhere to live, my boss she helped me to go to the tournaments. That's why I come back with the tour, because before I go to Japan, I stopped my tennis for almost one year. It was not easy with Chinese culture, with the parents, and I took a really long time to get out of the situation. So I was mostly managing the family problem at the first 10 years, 16 years old, so it was not easy.
"That's why I think it's one of the many reasons I come a little bit slower and I have no one to ask for help because in Taiwan there's very limited support, like the association has very limited experience to help the professional tennis player. So I took really awhile until Paul [McNamee] was working with me.
"And as you saw, my ranking went to Top 30. I win the first Grand Slam in the doubles. So it was amazing to have an Australian coach and have all the system to work out in Australia."
Bianca Andreescu reassures everyone she's feeling good:
"I have zero worries about my health. I'm going to continue doing what I've been doing because obviously it's working. But if I'm healthy I'm going to be playing. Obviously I want to be careful, but I will be playing."
Ajla Tomljanovic served for the win but lost a heartbreaker to No.2 Simona Halep, losing 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 on Margaret Court Arena. Chin up, Ajla:
"Unfortunately this one feels like maybe if I don't wake up tomorrow and force myself to keep going and kind of just put it behind me, it could sting for a while," Tomljanovic said. "I just don't think it's a smart way, smart road to go down.
"Of course naturally, as a human being, there is a reason why it should linger and it should maybe affect me negatively, but there is also another way to look at it. I mean, three months ago I didn't know if I was capable of playing a match like this, so I think there is a really good way to look at it.
"Fingers crossed, I will. I do believe that I will. I've got incredible people around me that are, like, here or even a phone call away. I have learned to share thoughts, feelings, and not put it all on myself.
"So it's gonna hurt for maybe a few days, but I'll get back into training and playing next week."
Elina Svitolina faces Yulia Putintseva for a spot in the Round of 16. The two have been battling it out on court since they were 10 years old.
"Actually, she's not different at all," Svitolina said. "She's still a great fighter. She was screaming [smiling], she was all the time really pumped, as she is now, as well. She lets her emotions go. It didn't change anything. We all grow, but at the same time we stay the same when we are playing tennis when we are in a fighting mood.
"I think fighting spirit is something that you have from a young age, and that's what you have to keep and keep improving your game.
"She's been playing good. She's been playing well lately. So yeah, I'm looking forward to the match."
to @TennisAustralia and the @AustralianOpen for all your hard work in having us here. There is a lot of hardship going on in the world right now, and a lost tennis match isn’t one of them!— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) February 11, 2021
Back to work I go 💪 #ausopen
Go big or go home, right Serena?
Q. You've met so many people through your life and been privileged to do that, from royalty to rock stars. Is there somebody you haven't met you want to meet and why?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Living or?
Q. Either way.
SERENA WILLIAMS: I mean, Jesus.
Q. Yeah, okay.
SERENA WILLIAMS: (Laughing) He would be like the ultimate.