Thanks for visiting the Australian Open Website. We can see you’re using Internet Explorer, and wanted to let you know that we will no longer be supporting this browser in future. We’d recommend you download a new browser if you'd like to continue keeping up with all of the latest tennis news!

Big stage, high stakes have Kanepi in her element

  • Dan Imhoff

Seed-slaying specialist Kaia Kanepi has a knack for finding her best on the biggest stages. The atmosphere at the majors, she admitted, was more electrifying, the stakes so much higher.

MORE: AO 2022 women's singles draw

For a woman capable of out-hitting any rival on her day, the 36-year-old feared no opponent, evident in her latest big-name upset of world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in the round of 16 on Monday to advance to a maiden Australian Open quarterfinal.

"Maybe I'm more focused on Grand Slams because I like big tournaments, and the Grand Slams are the most important tournaments," Kanepi explained. 

"Also, I like that we have days off after matches. The Grand Slams are in big cities and nice atmosphere. I guess that's it."

It was perhaps less of a surprise then that her fearlessness extended beyond the sport's biggest stages to an adrenaline-charged pursuit at the height of an Estonian winter.

For a sun-chasing lot, Kanepi accepted life on tour did not offer much of a window for tennis players to hit the snow in a northern hemisphere winter.

Ski slopes were almost certainly off-limits in any case, particularly given she had spent more than her fair share of time on the sidelines battling injuries in more than 20 years on tour.

Kanepi instead sought out her dose of winter adrenaline behind the wheel of a car.

"I like to race my rally car on ice roads," Kanepi said en route to her maiden Wimbledon quarterfinal in 2013. 

"In winter on a lake there is a lot of ice where you can drive fast. You are sliding around different corners. It's very cool."

Kanepi's win over Sabalenka was little surprise given the Estonian's penchant for beating seeds at Slams

Only two years ago, after bowing out in the opening round at Melbourne Park, Kanepi returned home to recalibrate and tweeted footage of her hugging corners on an ice-sludge racetrack.

If more of the same was on the cards this year after she returned home from her 16th start to the season Down Under, it would be just reward for her sun-chasing exploits.

A former world No.15 almost a decade ago, Kanepi arrived in Melbourne outside the top 100 and all but resigned to the fact her six prior Grand Slam quarterfinal runs at the other three majors would stand as her career highlights on the biggest stages.

"It just feels great that I got Australian Open quarterfinal too," Kanepi said after her defeat of Sabalenka. 

"I also didn't think I would play well in Australia, because during my career, I have heard that Australia doesn't suit everybody, and I thought that I'm just the one who doesn't really like playing here. But last two years I have played really well here."

The world No.115's upset of 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the opening round this fortnight was not such a surprise, even if the German had enjoyed a longer lead-up.

Kanepi has built a reputation as a giant-killer at the Slams. Her upset of Sabalenka was her ninth from 19 against top-10 opponents at this level.

Her list of top-10 victims at the majors already included Kerber, Samantha Stosur and Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon, Jankovic also at the US Open, Caroline Wozniacki at Roland Garros and then-No.1 Simona Halep at the 2018 US Open.

In all other tournaments outside the majors, she holds a 5-29 record against top-10 opponents.

Kanepi knocked off Angelique Kerber in round one to signal her intent

Kanepi had found success Down Under before, winning one of her four tour-level titles at the Brisbane International in 2012, while last year, she reached her first tour final in eight years at the Gippsland Trophy.

She continued her hot run at Melbourne Park last February with a huge upset over defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in just 64 minutes in the opening round.

Kenin was Kanepi's eighth seeded victim in the first round of a major, Kerber this year her ninth.

Injuries have long hindered the Estonian building much serious momentum during the season, but she was not above heading back to the drawing board at ITF level to rediscover form and confidence.

Last year after a first-round Wimbledon defeat, Kanepi entered a $25,000 ITF event in Parnu, Estonia. A second-round exit from Flushing Meadows prompted her to enter a $25,000 ITF event in Fort Worth, in the United States. She won both titles.

Seventh seed Iga Swiatek, a player 16 years her junior, now stands between Kanepi and an unlikely maiden Grand Slam semifinal.

Another top-10 victim could be just what the seed-slaying specialist has in mind for her next adrenaline-charged feat.