By Jane Voigt, Tennis With An Accent
Washington D.C. – Liudmila Samsonova’s first visit to the nation’s capital was a smash hit. Against all — or most — odds, she took out sixth-seeded Kaia Kanepi to win her first title here and her second career title overall.
“Mark, thank you so much,” she told tournament chairman Mark Ein in her championship speech. “A week ago I didn’t have a visa. So, to be here is amazing. Big thanks to my team.”
Kanepi was subdued in her on-court comments, but that’s in character for the 37-year-old Estonian. Most people would think that being on the brink of a title, with the last one recorded in 2013, would disappoint profoundly. Nonetheless, Kanepi saw the occasion differently.
“It’s been an amazing week. I’ve enjoyed everything here,” she said, adding, “I hope to be back next year.”
Before the Donald Dell Trophy was given to Samsonova, Ein spoke to fans, the number of which had dwindled drastically after the last ball was struck. The sun had been beating down on them in the Rock Creek Park stadium for close to two hours. People dove for shade when the chance came.
“2022 Citi Open was another record-breaking year,” Ein began. “Liudmila Samsonova becomes the tenth women’s singles title holder in Washington.”
Kanepi looked poised to steamroll her opponent, if the opening set was a prediction of things to follow. She broke Samsonova to secure the first set. However, in the middle of the second set her wheels started to wobble. Both women relied on big serves and heavy groundstrokes.
“The speed makes it tough,” Kanepi said about Samsonova’s serve, emphasizing, “[her] second serve [is] also a kick. Maybe that was the key.”
But not according to Samsonova. “I think it was the hardest match of the week because Kaia was playing amazing. She was serving so well.”
So it wasn’t Samsonova’s serve vexing Kanepi, it was Samsonova’s return of the Kanepi serve that the newly minted champion needed to solve and did.
“The key was to find a solution on the return,” she began. “It was a tough mental game today. I had to find a way to be aggressive on her serve and to break it.”
After losing the first set, Samsonova accepted the situation because “she was playing better, because she was aggressive. And, I make a little bit of mistakes on my serve.”
Kanepi is a baseline basher of the first order, planting herself on or near the center hashmark, then moving the ball from corner to corner just enough to get opponent off balance. Then, she attacks the corners. Although she favors her forehand, she can connect with her backhand in a pinch.
Yet, in the middle of the second set Kanepi went off the boil. Errors soared. First serves were missed. And, the pace of those serves diminished. Sitting winners in the first set found the net in set two. Samsonova didn’t need an invitation to pick up her attack. She broke to take the second set, 6-3.
“I didn’t expect [to win] at all,” Samsonova said. “It’s like a dream. I had some troubles off court. I changed my team, so it was not an easy decision [to come here].”
The visa question was another problem Samsonova had to solve.
“During the grass-court season, the agency [embassy] told me that it would be very hard to obtain the USA visa because the old one was expiring in July. It was a problem. So, in the end I got it two weeks ago [with help from a woman at the embassy].”
Although Samsonova missed the deadline to play singles in Toronto next week, she will play doubles with Martina Trevisan. “I think I’m playing on Tuesday. I go to Cincy to try to play there. Then it’s Cleveland and U.S. Open.”
In the middle of the third set, Kanepi left Stadium Court with a trainer for a medical timeout. When she returned there was no visible sign of a physical problem. No thigh wraps. No kinesiology tape. No change of outfit.
“My abs,” she said, when asked why she took a medical timeout. “Luckily it happened in the third set. It was new. I guess a lot of matches and a lot of serving this week. I haven’t had such a tough week for a long time. It affected a bit at the end.”
As the match wore on Samsonova’s returns kept hitting their targets. Kanepi’s powerful groundstrokes vanished along with powerful serves and, most notably service aces. Kanepi ended the match with half the number of aces as Samsonova, 5 to 10. Having come into the final with a total 30 aces, Sunday’s count was well below expectations.
Kanepi’s attitude about the final and her week in Washington was bright. She was at peace with her performance and results. Next week she’ll rise into the top 40 of the WTA rankings.
“I really don’t think about the ranking that much,” Kaia said. “I just want to stay healthy and play well. Ranking really doesn’t matter at this stage anymore,” she added, smiling. Kaia is 37.
Samsonova broke one final time in the third set. She had solved her return game problem and was hitting her spots on serve. Finally, she had her chance to serve for the title. Like a champion, she did.
How will she celebrate? “I don’t know, she said, smiling. “For sure some drinks. I think we will go out.”