NEW YORK — Kaia Kanepi made US Open history on Day 1 of the tournament by hitting the first-ever groundstroke at the newly-renovated Louis Armstrong Stadium, though having a 7-year-old in row two of the stadium catching her wildly errant forehand made that shot look far from a masterpiece.
Her last groundstroke in that match also made history, as it led to a win not seen in New York in at least 50 years while reaffirming that there is no place like New York for the Estonian whose hometown population is 4,000 less than the capacity of the stadium in which she had just won her match.
Kanepi opened up her 2018 US Open account by dispatching world No. 1 Simona Halep 6-2, 6-4, the first time the No. 1 seed in the women’s draw had been eliminated in the first round of America’s slam in the Open Era, and has not looked back since then and has made the Round of 16 in Queens for the third time in the last five years. The surprise elimination of the 2018 French Open champion indeed created a ripple effect on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but that should have quickly made way for a breakdown of why the 33-year-old from the Estonian city of Haapsalu usually saves most of her best moments on the tennis court for when she comes to a place that’s 85 times larger than the place of her humble beginnings.
As it turns out, Kanepi is a big-city girl at heart.
“I think the courts suit my game, and I love being in New York,” Kanepi said after her win over Halep. “I like the city. I like the atmosphere in tournaments and in the city, also.”
The city that never sleeps can surely be a wonderful place to be during the summer, but the sometimes-oppressive temperatures during the summer can be a downside to those looking for more temperate conditions. As the weather gets warmer, however, Kanepi feels even more at home.
“And I like the weather: humid and hot,” Kanepi said.
Just two years ago, Kanepi was as from from the heat – and the tennis court – as possible, as she took up ice driving in Finland after recovering from a foot injury that jeopardized her tennis career. She took to it so much that she went behind the wheel once again after the 2017 tennis season.
Before going back to the ice, however, Kanepi did end up returning to the court in June of 2017 – at No. 630 in the WTA rankings. Her only route to playing in main draws in the foreseeable was through qualifying, something she was able to do successfully in making it to the 2017 US Open field.
Her return to Gran Slam tennis got off to a pretty inauspicious start: losing 0-6 in the first set to 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. But Kanepi, who made the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2010 and fourth round in 2014, once again used the magic of New York to turn things around, defeating Schiavone and proceeding to make it to another quarterfinal in New York before losing to eventual finalist Madison Keys.
With her run to the Round of 16 this year, Kanepi has now had exactly half of her eight ventures into a second round of a Grand Slam while in New York City. With that run of form, Kanepi, who first came to New York when she was 16, should think about taking up residence in the Big Apple year round.
Well, maybe not just yet.
“I think it’s only when I’m [in New York] during the Open. Because I’ve been here when there was no US Open, and then the feeling wasn’t the same,” Kanepi said. “So I think it’s together. When I play a tournament, I like the atmosphere so it’s nice to be here.”
*A Lot of Sports Talk writer Ashley Burroughs contributed to the story.