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New Coach, New Kontaveit: A Late Chase for the WTA Finals

Anett Kontaveit in action at the WTA Finals.

Midway through the year, 2021 was looking like yet another solid, yet unspectacular season for Anett Kontaveit. The Estonian had finished her previous four campaigns situated between 21 and 34 in the WTA Rankings and clinched just one tour-level title at the 2017 Rosmalen Grass Court Championships. While she added two more finals to her resume in the first half of the season (one lost to Jelena Ostapenko in Eastbourne, one against Ann Li in Melbourne, which was cancelled due to scheduling conflicts arising from the pandemic), the 26-year-old was on track to finish another year ranked at more or less world #30.

Then came the new coach, former top 20 player Dmitry Tursunov, who took on Kontaveit in the middle of August and helped her ascend her game to previously unknown heights.┬áTursunov and Kontaveit kicked off their partnership at Cincinnati, where the Estonian lost in the opening round to Ons Jabeur. It was her fifth loss in a row and things were certainly looking quite bleak, even though the draws haven’t been kind at all. Little did they know that everything was about to change out of all recognition.

Chasing a first WTA Finals appearance

Kontaveit’s sensational late-season surge included 29 wins and just four losses. Most importantly, the Estonian was able to massively improve her record in tour-level finals, which previously stood at just one title in six attempts. Kontaveit was the last woman standing at two WTA 250 events at Cleveland and Cluj-Napoca, but also managed to grab the two biggest trophies of her career at WTA 500s in Ostrava and Moscow. Her run included a 12-match winning streak, the longest anyone achieved on the circuit the whole year.

The only losses came to (again) Ons Jabeur at Indian Wells, Iga Swiatek at the US Open, and Garbine Muguruza at the WTA Finals (round-robin and the championship match). Kontaveit wasn’t done breaking milestones yet and not only made it to the top 10 of the WTA Rankings for the very first time (as the first Estonian ever), but also debuted in the year-end championships. That last achievement is particularly impressive when we think back to how far off the cut she was right before starting her incredible streak.

While it could be argued that she only claimed less important titles and lost at all the three biggest events held late in the season, the quality of the opposition she took out is undeniable. In less than two months, Kontaveit managed to grab five top 10 victories (Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova). Her losses came to players ranked #5, #5, #8, and #14. In the last few months of the season, the Estonian was the player to watch in any tournament she entered.

Bringing out the “internal aggression”

“She’s a bit more aggressive, and I think that’s a kind of built-in trait. I felt she has this internal aggression in her game, suppressed in some way and that’s what I felt she should tap into” was what Tursunov had to say about his protege as early as Indian Wells. That confidence to step into her shots and be a more dominant player on the court is what led Kontaveit to all the success this year. The potential was always there but it wasn’t always easy to bring it out.

Kontaveit’s forehand, cross-court in particular, was the shot to avoid in the second half of the 2021 season. Its importance was very well demonstrated by her a little shaky WTA Finals campaign (even though she still reached the final). The extreme high-altitude conditions didn’t sit quite right with her flatter strokes, which resulted in lots of unforced errors. When the courts suited her better, especially indoors, Kontaveit got borderline unstoppable. The 26-year-old ended the season on a 15-match win streak under the roof.

Looking for a Major breakthrough

One thing her 2021 campaign lacked was a bigger run at a Grand Slam. The Estonian lost in the third round at the Australian Open (to Shelby Rogers), French Open (to Swiatek), and at the US Open (to Swiatek again). Only the loss in New York came in the middle of her sensational run of form, but the three-set match definitely had some real quality to it. Kontaveit’s best finish at a Major so far has been the quarterfinals of the 2020 Australian Open (where she, coincidentally, defeated Swiatek the round earlier).

The conditions in Melbourne clearly suit her well and in the form that she finished the year with, Kontaveit has to be regarded as one of the favorites to win the title. If she gets to the latter stages, lacking experience there could be an issue. The key for the Estonian will be to keep forcing the opponents to play on her own terms, using that supreme confidence that helped her win her last 29 out of 33 matches.

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