NEW YORK, NY, USA - Court 15 is one of the few places relatively untouched by the yearly renovations around the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, making it the perfect stage for a nostalgic match-up between two 2010 US Open quarterfinalists, Kaia Kanepi and Francesca Schiavone.
Kanepi is a former World No.15 who battled through qualifying after spending nearly two years off tour due to Epstein-Barr virus and plantar fasciitis in both feet.
“I actually did not know if I would come back again,” she admitted to WTA Insider after a rain-delayed 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over Schiavone. “For three months, I didn’t even treat the injury, because I just didn’t care.”
The Estonian star would be forgiven for a little cynicism given her career-long ordeal with long term injuries, ironically earning that career-high ranking while healing an Achilles injury back in 2012.
Three months earlier, she had reached a second French Open quarterfinal, and maintained a bizarrely consistent streak where, in between injuries, she managed to reach the second week at a Grand Slam six times in eight years - once as a qualifier.
The turnaround started less as inspiration and more as necessity.
“I started thinking, ‘Okay, I’m tired of waking up every day with pain. I should get my feet in good condition.’ That’s when I started making treatments, and by December I began actually training a bit with a discus thrower in Estonia, just for fun. I still didn’t know if I want to come back.
“In January or February I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been training already, so maybe I should try one more time to come back.’”
That comeback began in June, when she won a 25K ITF Challenger title against another resurgent veteran in former World No.8 Patty Schnyder.
“When I played my first match I won quite easily, in one hour, but the next day my body was really tight. It takes time to get used to it, but the body comes around eventually.”
She won another title at home in Estonia before coming to Flushing to play her first hardcourt tournament since January 2015.
“There are so many new faces that it’s a bit strange to be back. But some players are saying, ‘Welcome back, nice to see you’ which is a good feeling, that players are happy to see me.”
Schiavone was one of those well-wishers. A former champion at the French, the Italian was complementary of her opponent in post-match press.
“I think she came back strong and solid with her shots. She has to improve her movement, but that’s how she normally plays. If she serves more strongly, I think she’ll play at a high level again.”
It has indeed been vintage Kanepi off the ground. Equally blunt and precise off the court, she aims to take a more mature approach to this latest chapter of her intriguing career.
“I’ve learned that the most important thing is your health, and you shouldn't ignore any pain. I’ve done that in the past, and now I don’t want to do it again. If I feel any pain I won’t play, but I feel really good. I have been playing a lot lately and my body is really not used to it, so that’s why I have some tape.
“It’s a great feeling to be in the city, so I like to walk around because it’s so different. It makes me want to play better, and keeps me from thinking about how far I’ve had to come to make it here. I’m just enjoying being back on the court, and playing well.”
It will be 2010 all over again for Kanepi in the next round. The 32-year-old next takes on Yanina Wickmayer in a rematch of their Round of 16 encounter from seven years ago.