Kaia Kanepi advances to meet Liudmila Samsonova in Citi Open final

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She had an eight-year gap between singles finals, a span that included a brief hiatus from tennis to, among other things, attend professional driving school in Finland and learn how to navigate icy roads. The lesson there? It’s better to go slow.

With that nugget dictating her most fruitful season in years, 37-year-old Kaia Kanepi rolled into the final of the Citi Open on Saturday with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Daria Saville at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. That part was over quickly, just 73 minutes of Kanepi maintaining easy power while Saville, who called the trainer twice to work on her lower back, grew more frustrated as she stalked around the court.

Kanepi will face Liudmila Samsonova, a 23-year-old Russian who spent most of her life in Italy, in her second singles final in as many years on Sunday. Before then, Kanepi hadn’t reached a final since 2013. She’ll play for the fifth singles title of a career that began in 1999, making her path more of a Sunday drive than a dead sprint.

The key to her longevity, Kanepi said, is learning to take her time.

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She now arrives at tournaments earlier so she can acclimate to the environment, shake off jet lag and get comfortable. She takes more rest between events to recover, and that comfort leads to confidence on the court.

The strategy has helped her perform well in places she never thrived as a younger player. Kanepi’s résumé is distinguished — she has been ranked as high as No. 15 (in 2012) and was the first Estonian to make it into the top 20 in 2009 — and for that, she is feared on tour and a bit of a cult favorite among fans, often cropping up in unseeded draws and threatening top players. But she has not consistently sparkled on tennis’s biggest stages.

She reached the fifth quarterfinal of her career in January at the Australian Open, a milestone that set the tone for her year. Her 19 match wins in 2022 are the most she has had since 2013.

“I never thought I would make quarters in Australia. I thought, ‘It’s not just my place,'” Kanepi said. “But I played really well, and then I continued playing well. I didn’t actually put any pressure on myself to achieve something special.”

Kanepi, ranked No. 37, has looked disciplined on court as she churned through the draw this week. Samsonova will be her highest-ranked opponent yet at No. 60; en route to the final she didn’t face anyone ranked higher than No. 71.

The Russian, meanwhile, defeated No. 10 Emma Raducanu, No. 30 Elise Mertens and No. 69 Ajla Tomljanovic before her semifinal Saturday, when she trounced No. 95 Xiyu Wang, 6-1, 6-1.

“It’s amazing — I didn’t expect this. I came through after one month of preparation. It was a lot, ohhh, a lot of hard work,” Samsonova said. “We were focusing on everything.”

Sunday’s match will pit power against power. Both women stand 5-foot-11, although the lankier Samsonova has more reach than Kanepi as well as a win over the Estonian under her belt, in straight sets at Wimbledon last year.

At the Citi Open, men’s and women’s seeds tumble as rain ravages the schedule

Samsonova represented Italy until 2018, when she switched to play under her native Russian flag; competing in a bigger pool of tennis talent has relieved pressure and allowed her to flourish. She reached her lone career singles final in Berlin last year, when she captured the trophy.

“Kaia, I like her game. She plays well. I think it will be a match where I have to focus a lot, because whoever will do the first shots better I think will manage the game,” Samsonova said. “Of course, experience makes a difference. But I think I have a little bit of experience now, too.”

Kanepi will be in part banking on her confidence and veteran savvy against Samsonova. She said she played her best match of the tournament Saturday as she grows more comfortable on the court and extends her strong season and her career, with no end in sight.

And whenever she decides to retire, she always has a backup option in the form of a sports car waiting in her garage. A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, to be exact.

“I have this kind of car that I can do the drifting, which I like,” Kanepi said with a smile. “I don’t really like going fast.”

Pegula takes second Citi Open title

Defending Citi Open singles champion Jessica Pegula may have lost her chance to repeat earlier this week, but she didn’t leave Washington empty-handed. The 28-year-old took home the doubles title Saturday with her Kiwi partner Erin Routliffe with a 6-3, 5-7, 12-10 win over Anna Kalinskaya and Catherine McNally.

It is the third tour-level doubles title of Pegula’s career and her second of 2022 after winning in Qatar in February with Coco Gauff. It is Routliffe’s second career trophy.

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