On Sunday, 16 women competed in the second round of qualifying of the Prsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart — one of them being a very familiar face in Kaia Kanepi. The Estonian was handed a tough draw in her first tournament back after three months and went out in straight sets to qualifying’s top seed Camila Giorgi. Even though Kanepi didn’t win her match, there were other reasons for her to be happy, as René Denfeld found out when he sat down with the former World No. 15 afterwards.
“I’m a bit tired right now and my legs were a bit tired, too, in the match, but overall, I’m pleased to be back and play tournaments,” Kanepi said with a smile as she sat down in one of the comfortable lounge chairs in Stuttgart’s Porsche arena.
Considering the 30-year-old had as good as vanished from competition after her loss — a retirement against Kateryna Bondarenko — in Brisbane qualifying, her performances over the course of this weekend were encouraging. After defeating Virginie Razzano in straight sets, Kanepi showed traces of the game that took her to a total of five Grand Slam quarterfinals, as she pushed Giorgi, particularly in the first set. In the end, however, her lack of matchplay and reduced training schedule proved costly — none the more evident as she bowed out with two double faults.
“I played Brisbane qualies and then I didn’t do anything for two months, except walking with my dog,” Kanepi almost chuckled. “I started training around three weeks ago. It’s a bit [of a] short training time but I wanted to come back and compete and I know I can get in shape playing tournaments. [because] last year, it was so on and off — I did train and I did compete and then I got sick…I had to come back many times and I said ‘I don’t want to train that much.'”
Kanepi’s career could best be described as fragmentary, even at the best of times. Great results have gone hand-in-hand with injuries and more than once, a semblance of momentum was halted by an unexpected loss or another ailment that kept her out of competition for weeks or months. Her career-high ranking, World No. 15 in August of 2012, is perhaps the biggest microcosm of her career; she reached her highest point while being sidelined due to an injury.
Early last week, Kanepi took to her official Facebook page to explain the reason for her three-month absence and infrequent play over the course of the past 18 months — a time that also saw her go from doctor to doctor to figure out the problem.
“It’s the Eppstein-Barr virus,” she explained. “I think it’s the stress, too — like, when I travel I feel more stressed and [you feel] the pressure that you have to play well — but I’m not feeling good and then it’s all about stress, I guess, this disease. Now I decided to take it a little easier and see how it goes. Right now, I don’t want to push myself more, for sure — better less than nowhere.”
The Epstein-Barr virus is best known as the cause of mononucleosis, and with regards to dealing with a disease that made its presence felt amongst tennis players in recent years, Kanepi didn’t have to look all that far to get help and advice.
“There’s another Estonian player [Anett Kontaveit] who also had mono and her mom told my fitness trainer what they did and then we got some ideas,” Kanepi said.
Adversity due to injuries and physical issues aren’t exactly a rarity in the career of Kanepi though — particularly during Olympic years. The Estonian looked puzzled when reminded of this unfortunate statistic but once reminded of the actual ailments — a broken finger (2004), an appendix (2008) and Achilles problems (2012) — she burst into something akin to acknowledging laughter. While not focused on the possibility of making the Olympics for the fourth time, and finally being able to play, she acknowledges “it’s a long way [away] right now,” — a gentle reminder of her own words following her withdrawal from the London Games:
“I do not know if I will ever get another chance to participate in the Olympic Games.”
Kanepi ended 2015 outside the world’s Top 100 for the first time in a decade, and is no longer her country’s top-ranked women’s player for the first time since 2005. She’s currently ranked World No. 182, but having to work her way back on tour isn’t something extraordinary for the four-time WTA title-winner — on the contrary, she’s almost made a habit of it. That doesn’t make it any easier though, as her 16th season as a professional moves forward.
“It’s difficult, well…I’m used to coming back now, so it’s not that difficult now, but it’s difficult when something happens again and you need to get in shape again and again,” she said. “That’s tiring.”
Over the next couple of weeks, the Estonian plans to take everything step by step and is seeing the positives in her first matches back after almost three and a half months away from the tour.
“I think I got a good match today and maybe the third match in a row would be too much, y’know in the beginning right now, so…that’s why it’s good,” she reflected. “Yesterday, I got a win and today a good match, I’m happy. One match at a time, I’m hopeful to stay healthy cause I put less stress on myself and from others too, so maybe that helps me not to get sick. I’ll stay here a few stays and practice, then I’ll go to Rabat and practice there again. I need to get used to the outside conditions — well, I’m not going to want to train but I’m still going to train and take care of my body more than before.”
When asked to sum up her career so far in words, Kanepi pulled up from her chair, then turned over with three fingers up:
“Ups and downs” — and then she sank back into her chair, laughing out loud.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix!