FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The ball fluttered in the gusty bluster as predictably as a piece of popcorn tossed from the promenade deck and the sweet spot looked as large as a lifesaver when Jelena Jankovic shanked a serve so badly it sailed several rows back into the stands prompting one fan to duck the felt foul ball.
That frame shot symbolized the type of day it was for the 2008 US Open finalist: a frustrated Jankovic fretted, framed balls and even yelled at the elements at one point while Kaia Kanepi continued to swing away through the drafty day.
In the end, the 31st-seeded Estonian managed both her emotions and shots better than Jankovic in bouncing the fourth-seeded Serbian out of the US Open third round, 6-2, 7-6(1) on a day in which wind gusts reached more than 25 mph on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.
“Oh, the wind was really tough. The conditions were really, really tough to play,” said Jankovic, who got to the post-match press conference so quickly you wondered if she sprinted down the hall way. “I had a really hard time hitting the balls. obviously, they were going all over the place. The wind was really strong and she handled those kind of conditions a lot better than I did…You hit the ball in one direction, it goes another. You’re just getting ready to hit the ball and it just moves away from you. She was the better player today. Congrats to her.”
Reaching the Flushing Meadows fourth round for the first time in five appearances, Kanepi is one win away from her second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal. The Wimbledon quarterfinalist will play either 15th-seeded Yanina Wickmayer or Swiss southpaw Patty Schnyder for a place in the last eight in what has become a wide-open second quarter of the draw.
“My coach told me we have a chance everywhere we go, so we have a chance here,” Kanepi said.
Player and coach have cause for such optimism.
In the span of four months, the 25-year-old Kanepi has completely revived her career in raising her ranking 108 spots from No. 140 to No. 32 after embarking on a 31-4 tear from the start of May through mid July. She played through qualifying at Wimbledon and strung together seven straight wins, beating French Open finalist Samantha Stosur at the grass-court Grand Slam along the way, before suffering a heart-breaking loss to Petra Kvitova, 8-6 in the third set, in the quarterfinals.
Following her Wimbledon run she swept World No. 12 Flavia Pennetta in the Palermo final to become the first Estonian woman to win a WTA Tour title in July.
The 5-foot-11 Kanepi has always been a big hitter, but has worked to temper her power with patience after bottoming out with a Flushing Meadows first-round loss last year that was one of 11 consecutive opening-round exits. During those dark days she bounced racquets off the court as frequently as fans through coins into the fountains outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Now she’s collecting wins even in unforgiving winds and reaping the rewards of a more self-controlled approach.
“I changed my game and tried to play more patient,” Kanepi said. “Then I started winning and my confidence started getting higher. Last year, I started losing and I had to change. I’m still quite aggressive, but I try to play more patient.”
Patience and precision are the the cornerstones of Jankovic’s game, but that foundation cracked and crumbled as Jankovic, who is usually so adept at taking those short preparation steps before striking her shots, sometimes flailed off balance like a woman trying to hit the ball while embroiled in a game of twister.
On a day in which merely making clean contact looked as easy as threading a needle on a stuck on a spinning pin wheel, the Wimbledon quarterfinalist summed up her
tactical approach simply.
“I tried to hit as much balls inside the court as possible,” Kanepi said. “She was frustrated, but sometimes I also got upset.”
Jankovic is one of the fastest players in women’s tennis and plays concise combinations when she’s on her game, but could not use her speed to salvage a match of shoddy shotmaking in which she clanked 41 unforced errors against just 13 winners.
The former World No. 1 does not hit the ball as hard as Kanepi and struggled to hit through the wind when playing against it on the north side of the court.
“Why is it so windy?” Jankovic pleaded at the sky at one point as if seeking some celestial answer that never came.
“You get frustrated with the wind because you want to hit the ball in a certain direction and they want to go everywhere except where you want them to go,” Jankovic said in explaining her frustration. “And then, it’s physical because you have to move your feet a lot more. You have to be alert.”
The swirl sent a Jankovic backhand beyond the baseline as Kanepi broke for 5-3 in the second set. Serving for the match, Kanepi got tight and dropped serve for the first time when Jankovic stepped forward and smacked a backhand return winner down the line.
“That wasn’t because of the wind,” Kanepi confided afterward. “It was because of the head. Most of us start to think too much when we serve for it.”
The breeze blew the bottom of Jankovic’s purple dress up to her waist revealing her red
sports shorts. She held for 5-all then broke for 6-5, but Kanepi broke right back and hammered her way through the wind and Jankovic in the breaker.
Kanepi took the court with a 1-8 career record against top five players. She sealed her fourth career win over a top 10 player with two of those coming against Jankovic on hard court and received a congratulatory text from her father moments after stepping off court.
“He said ‘Well done. It was amazing,’ ” Kanepi said in summing up the sentiments of surviving her first appearance on the largest — and windiest — Grand Slam stage in the game.
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.