Kaia Kanepi advances to face Liudmila Samsonova in the Citi Open final

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She had an eight-year hiatus between singles finals, a period that included a brief hiatus from tennis to, among other things, attend a professional driving school in Finland and learn how to navigate icy roads. The lesson there? It’s better to walk slowly.

With that nugget dictating her most fruitful season in years, 37-year-old Kaia Kanepi rolled into the finals of the Citi Open on Saturday with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Daria Saville at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. That part was over quickly with just 73 minutes in which Kanepi maintained her easy strength while Saville, who called the coach twice to get work on her lower back, grew increasingly frustrated as she strutted around the pitch.

Kanepi meets Liudmila Samsonova, a 23-year-old Russian who has lived most of her life in Italy, in her second singles final in as many years on Sunday. Previously, Kanepi had not reached a final since 2013. She will be playing for the fifth singles title of a career that began in 1999, making her way more of a Sunday ride than a dead sprint.

The key to their longevity, Kanepi said, is learning to take your time.

Nick Kyrgios defeats Frances Tiafoe in a thrilling three-set spectacle at the Citi Open

She’s coming to tournaments earlier now so she can adjust to the environment, shake off the jet lag and get comfortable. She rests more between events to recover and that comfort inspires confidence on the pitch.

The strategy has helped her do well in places she never did as a younger player. Kanepi’s resume is excellent – she was even ranked No. 15 (2012) and was the first Estonian to make the top 20 in 2009 – and for that she’s feared on tour and a kind of cult favorite among fans, often popping unseen in ties up and threaten top players. But she hasn’t always shone on tennis’s biggest stages.

She reached her fifth career quarterfinal at the Australian Open in January, a milestone that set the tone for her year. Her 19 match wins in 2022 is the most she’s had since 2013.

“I never thought that I would live in Australia. I thought, ‘This isn’t just my seat,'” Kanepi said. “But I played really well and then I kept playing well. I didn’t really put any pressure on myself to do anything special.”

Kanepi, ranked 37th, appeared disciplined on the pitch as she struggled through this week’s draw. Samsonova will be her highest-ranking opponent to date at No. 60; En route to the finals, she met no one ranked higher than No. 71.

The Russian, meanwhile, defeated No. 10 Emma Raducanu, No. 30 Elise Mertens and No. 69 Ajla Tomljanovic ahead of their semi-final on Saturday when she defeated No. 95 Xiyu Wang 6-1, 6-1.

“It’s amazing – I didn’t expect that. After a month of preparation, I got through. It was a lot, ohhh, a lot of hard work,” Samsonova said. “We focused on everything”

It will be might versus might in Sunday’s game. Both women stand 5-foot-11, although the lanky Samsonova has more reach than Kanepi as well as a win over the Estonian at Wimbledon last year in straight sets.

Men’s and women’s seeds tumble at the Citi Open as rain ravages the schedule

Samsonova represented Italy until 2018 when she switched to play under her native Russian flag. Competing in a larger pool of tennis talent has eased the pressure and allowed her to thrive. She reached her lone career singles final in Berlin last year when she won the trophy.

“Kaia, I like your game. she plays well I think it’s going to be a game where I have to concentrate a lot because I think whoever gets better in the first shots will win the game,” Samsonova said. “Of course, experience plays a role. But I think I also have a bit of experience now.”

Kanepi will partly rely on her confidence and experience against Samsonova. She said she played her best match of the tournament on Saturday as she feels more comfortable on the pitch and extends her strong season and career with no end in sight.

And if she decides to retire, she always has a backup option in the form of a sports car waiting in her garage. A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X to be exact.

“I have such a car that I can drift with, which I like,” Kanepi said with a smile. “I don’t like driving fast.”

Pegula takes second title at Citi Open

Defending Citi Open champion Jessica Pegula may have missed her chance for a repeat earlier this week, but she didn’t leave Washington empty-handed. The 28-year-old won the doubles title with her Kiwi partner Erin Routliffe on Saturday in a 6-3, 5-7, 12-10 win over Anna Kalinskaya and Catherine McNally.

It is the third tour-level doubles title of Pegula’s career and her second in 2022 after winning with Coco Gauff in Qatar in February. It is Routliffe’s second career trophy.

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