Matt Zemek

Anett Kontaveit does not make it easy to assess tennis players or tournaments. The Estonian has enough game to bother elite players in big tournaments (Garbine Muguruza last year at Roland Garros, Caroline Wozniacki last year at Wimbledon), but enough of a fragile psyche to lose four matches in a row, as was the case heading into this week’s Stuttgart WTA Tour stop.

Kontaveit’s opening-match win in Stuttgart was ugly as hell. A messy, cluttered, three-hour, nine-minute triumph over Kristina Mladenovic was not easy to watch or enjoy. The match felt as uncomfortable as the reality it embodied: Both players were mired in a slump and lacked confidence. Kontaveit didn’t soar in that win so much as she survived. 

Yet, as Novak Djokovic could tell you after his 2010 U.S. Open first-round win over Viktor Troicki, the most forgettable and uneven matches against less-than-fully-heralded opposition can become hugely significant. That first-round win — which Djokovic bagged after being down two sets to one and facing trouble early in the fourth set — enabled Djokovic to play his way into form over the course of that tournament. He was able to beat Roger Federer in New York, something he hadn’t previously managed to do in three tries. He gave Rafael Nadal a battle in the final and realized how good he could be. That Troicki escape enabled him to see, in the course of time, how much he could achieve. If he had not beaten Troicki and had not gained that fuller glimpse of his ceiling, Djokovic might not have become the player he did in 2015 and 2016.

Winning an ugly match proved to be a vital career-changing moment.

It could be the same for Kontaveit, but we have to wait and see.

After that 3:09 survival act against Mladenovic, Kontaveit didn’t lose a game in eight games against Angelique Kerber, who had to retire in Thursday’s round of 16. Kontaveit was able to move into the quarterfinals against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a veteran who shares Kontaveit’s penchant for wrenching losses but has performed on tour for several more years… and therefore doesn’t have as much time or as many excuses. Kontaveit, still only 22, can still develop a new way of being. 

Beating Pavlyuchenkova on Friday (Stuttgart quarterfinals) in two hours and 55 minutes — giving her a second match in three days which exceeded 2:54 — consolidates the Mladenovic win and offers fresh reason to think that, maybe after all, Kontaveit is ready to attain a higher level of performance. Had the Estonian not won that car-crash of a match against Mladenovic, she wouldn’t have gained this subsequent chance to prove herself in tough matches.

Maybe now that two marathons have both gone her way, Kontaveit will settle into a competitive groove on the road to Roland Garros. No guarantees or even likelihoods exist, but Kontaveit is at least giving herself a chance to dream big — and realistically. 

All because she won a very ugly match. That ugly duckling could soon turn into a beautiful swan.

Did we say Kontaveit is an inconvenient player to analyze?  One more note reaffirms this point: Precisely because of the volatility in Kontaveit’s career, we can’t yet say how important a tournament 2018 Stuttgart will prove to be for her. It could mean nothing, it could mean everything. It could mean something firmly in the middle of those two polarities, or it could mean something which leans heavily toward one side. At any rate, we won’t know until after Rome (at the earliest) or Roland Garros (the latest) if one week in Germany transformed Kontaveit’s season or career.

Right now, we don’t know… which is part of the world of inconvenience this player seems to create every day.

The plot twist in Stuttgart: Anett Kontaveit is creating inconvenient truths in good and productive ways, not bad ones.


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