The life-changing pivot occurred back on Aug. 23 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Anett Kontaveit, mired in a grim five-match losing streak, seemed destined for a sixth. But after dropping the first set of her first-round match to Cleveland native Lauren Davis (losing six of seven games), something changed. She took the next two sets 6-0, 6-0 and, nearly three months later, Kontaveit is still playing at a level once far over her head.
“In those two sets, she almost played flawless tennis,” her coach Dmitry Tursunov said Monday night. “It was one of those days where everything sort of goes in. It was interesting because it happened in the middle of the match. She just stopped overthinking and went for her shots.
“It was nothing, really, that I had said or done. At that point, I think she just trusted herself a little bit more. Maybe she got a little bit angry at herself for not allowing herself to play her best tennis.”
The last one into the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara field, Kontaveit was first into the semifinals after casting aside Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova and Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova. And Tuesday night the 25-year-old Kontaveit took out Maria Sakkari to advance to Wednesday’s final.
Kontaveit, the first Estonian to qualify for the year-end tournament, had won 28 of 30 matches, including 12 in a row, before losing her third round-robin match to Garbiñe Muguruza, whom she will play again for the title.
The remarkable turnaround has reporters in the role of forensic detectives, trying unearth the cause of it. Was it a technical change?
“I haven’t changed anything technical, from what I know of,” Kontaveit said, smiling. “I think it’s just really trusting my shots a little bit more, just going for it, but going for it with margins, stay aggressive and be in charge whenever possible. When it’s not possible, just stay in the rallies, be as consistent as possible.”
Maybe it’s just that simple – or complicated.
“There’s definitely a change in her mental state,” Tursunov said. “I don’t know if [that day in] Cleveland was a catalyst for all of this. We always try to find this one thing – what flipped the switch? I don’t know. It seems like, chronologically, that was the turning point for her.”
Her semifinals victory gave Kontaveit a record of 48-17, tying her with Ons Jabeur for the most wins on tour. Heading into the Cleveland event, that would have been difficult to imagine.
Kontaveit was 19-13 for the year and after a string of first-round losses – at Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, Montreal and Cincinnati – sat at No.30 in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals. She had broken earlier with Nigel Sears, her coach of three years, and Tursunov, after a number of conversations, was the choice to replace him. They met for the first time a few days before the Western & Southern Open, where she would lose to Jabeur in three sets.
Kontaveit won all five of her matches in Cleveland, the last over Irina-Camelia Begu for the second title of her career; it had been more than four years when she broke through at the Ricoh Open in the Netherlands.
“Honestly, at that point, I had just started working with Dmitry, and I was hoping not to get the losing streak up to 10,” Kontaveit said to the WTA. “I think he has a very good understanding of the game and had a lot of motivation. I really agreed with the way he saw I could improve my tennis.
“He’s brought a lot of positivity back to my game, helped me get my belief back. Just not stress about things too much – and I think that’s been a huge help.”
Tursunov is quick to deflect credit for Kontaveit’s sudden rise, but those around the game say he’s a big part of her success. One of them is Chris Evert, a tournament ambassador in Guadalajara.
“I think Anett was really happy to be steady, to out-steady her opponents,” Evert said. “Now she has taken on an aggressive approach, and there’s nobody better than him to guide her, because he had that game, to show it can work for her.”
Following a loss to Iga Swiatek in the third round of the US Open, Kontaveit was more than happy to return home to Estonia after a long road trip. After a few days off, energized, she laid down her signature title run in Ostrava. While the highest-ranked player she encountered in Cleveland was Sara Sorribes Tormo, at No. 43, the field in the Czech Republic event was loaded. Nevertheless, Kontaveit defeated, in order, Sorana Cirstea, Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova and Maria Sakkari, all Top 40 players – all in straight sets.
“I was in this headspace where I was really ready to put my head down and work very hard,” Kontaveit said, “and the results followed very quickly. I was just trying to focus on each match and not think about what was at stake. I was in the zone, just playing matches and competing every time I went on court.”
A quick jog back to America saw her withdraw from a match in Chicago, then fall to Jabeur in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells. Aware that she was in running for Guadalajara, Kontaveit played tournaments in Moscow and Cluj-Napoca – and won them both. In a span of 10 weeks, she won four titles, easing past Jabeur for the last year-end qualifying spot.
“I saw something three years ago,” said Evert, an eight-time WTA Finals champion. “I saw a look, a hunger in her eyes. She wanted it badly. I love the way she has been hitting the ball so cleanly in recent months.
“She is getting more aggressive and jumping the ball much earlier now and hitting them for winners. And with that aggressive approach, comes confidence.”
In her WTA bio, after Kontaveit lists her idols as Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka, there is this: Goal is to reach Top 10.
And here she is, at a career-high No.8.
“For a long time, it didn’t seem realistic,” Kontaveit said. “Until it happened, I wasn’t thinking about it too much because it seemed like such a long shot. It’s a dream come true, so now I have to set higher goals.”
When she finally finds time to sit down with Tursunov, they’ll discuss those goals for 2022. At the top of that list is likely to be better performances at the Grand Slam events. In 26 major appearances, Kontaveit has one quarterfinal, at last year’s Australian Open.
“Honestly,” Tursunov said, “I think both of us have to embrace the fact that however unbelievable it was, it happened. She did achieve all this, but now it’s in the past and you’ve got to look forward to setting new goals, new targets.”
Including her immediate aspirations at these Finals.
“I've been consistently playing very good tennis,” Kontaveit said. “Just really, I think the main thing is I've managed to somehow enjoy being on the court, playing matches, being competitive. I think towards the end of the year that's what really brought me the main success.”