By Giri Nathan
“I have no idea what’s going on,” said Anett Kontaveit, not long after beating Simona Halep in the final of the Transylvanian Open earlier this month. That sentiment was probably shared by plenty of tennis fans. While the end of the calendar often sees many players rest their tired bones and carefully pick their last few events, it has been Kontaveit’s time to ascend. Her defeat of Halep extended an outrageous late-season surge that’s won her four titles in seven tournaments. She did not exactly offer any indication this summer of what was to come this fall: Consecutive first-round losses in Eastbourne, Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, Montreal, and Cincinnati made for the worst losing streak in her pro career. Rare is the athlete who can flip an 0–5 run right into a 26–2 one, but here’s Anett, now a career-high No. 8 in the world, just barely sneaking past her friend Ons Jabeur to claim the last spot in the WTA Finals this week in Guadalajara. What is going on?
Some players with this kind of firepower take a little time to find their range. And taken altogether, it’s better off being one of those slow-burners with a higher ceiling than a grinder who emerges on tour fully formed. At the end of that five-match skid, in Cincinnati, she brought on new coach (and former player) Dmitry Tursunov, who’d last worked with Aryna Sabalenka during her rise. “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,” Tursunov said of his approach to coaching Kontaveit. Other wonderful and perhaps relatable lines from Tursunov, who is sneakily one of the most quotable figures in the game: “I feel like I’m doing a good job. I used to be afraid of saying that. I act like an idiot and sometimes I enjoy acting like an idiot, but I really know what I’m talking about and I’m passionate about it.”
Perhaps because he enjoys acting like an idiot—once again I feel qualified to coach professional tennis—Kontaveit says Tursunov is helping her relax and enjoy her time on court, and that she’s gone on “autopilot” as she chewed through the opposition over the past two months. Having floated around the top 30 for four seasons, the 25-year-old Estonian has apparently found another register to her tennis. Whatever Kontaveit has done to tap into that “internal aggression” is working, because these matches have not been close—she’s dropped seven sets in the last 28 matches—and even top opponents have, perhaps most memorably Garbiñe Muguruza, who received the double breadstick in Moscow. The Kontaveit forehand is at time of writing the meanest shot on tour, struck with lots of shape and precision, not so much opening up the court as puncturing it completely. For how aggressively she’s been swinging at her returns, it’s little surprise that she has won well over 50% of return points in many of her matches during this stretch of dominance, according to Tennis Abstract. The off-season offers plenty of time to fall completely out of form, but any player looking this springy on the baseline and spraying this many easy winners is a bona fide hard-court Slam contender come 2022.
Before Australia there is still Mexico to play, where Kontaveit will take on the tour’s best, only some of whom she’s smashed in recent weeks, in high-altitude conditions. So far so good: A win over French Open champ and world No. 3 Barbora Krejickova takes her to 27–2. Should she carry this momentum through the end of the Finals, she’d pull off one of the strangest late-season turnarounds we’ve ever seen.
Above: Anett Kontaveit arrived in Mexico on the hottest streak in tennis. (Getty)