RIGA - With the 2011 tennis season just getting underway, the future of tennis for this part of the world is looking good, with four Baltic players set to feature prominently in tournaments throughout the year.
Since the three Baltic States claimed independence, the countries have regularly had players ranked in the top 100 of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis) world rankings. But now all three do not just have players with high rankings – they have players good enough to win major tournaments.
Estonia’s best hopes lie in women’s tennis, with Kaia Kanepi; Latvia is looking good in both the men’s and women’s game thanks to Ernests Gulbis and Anastasija Sevastova; while Richard Berankis is proudly carrying the hopes of Lithuanian tennis on the men’s tour.
In the opening grand slam of the year in Melbourne, Australia, a fortnight ago, Sevastova and Berankis were two of the key talking points as they pushed deep into their respective singles draws before bowing out to top 10 seeded players.
In his lead-up tournaments to the Australian Open, former junior world no.1 Berankis had to fight his way through qualifying just to make the main draw, where he would ultimately come up against top seeded players who went into their games well rested.
But in Melbourne, he finally got the opportunity to show his full potential. Ranked 95 before the tournament, Berankis automatically qualified for the main draw where he eased through his opening game, forcing the retirement of world no. 21 David Nalbandian in the second round before coming unstuck to seventh seeded David Ferrer of Spain in the round of 32. His performance was good enough to see a jump of 22 spots in the world rankings and move himself into a valuable position that should now see him automatically qualify for main draws, and not have to fight his way through the dreaded qualifying route. He is now the highest ranked Lithuanian tennis player ever, and at 20, the youngest player in the top 75 in the world.
His relative success in Australia has seen him grab the attention of the international media, including an interview in the leading American fashion magazine for men, Vman. This is no mean feat for the son of a cab driving father and post office working mother.
Sevastova’s story in Melbourne was no less impressive. After something of a break-through year in 2010, Sevastova still needed to prove herself in grand slams, having experienced early exits in her previous attempts. Going into Australia her build-up could not have gone worse, with bronchitis leaving her bedridden and unable to compete in her two lead-up tournaments. However, when Sevastova finally took to the court, few would have known the struggle she had gone through just to be out there playing as she raced through the first three rounds without dropping a set. Her run finally came to an end in the round of 16, where she fell to world no. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
Although falling in straight sets, her performance was enough to see her recognized as a player to watch in the next generation on wta.com (women’s tennis official Web site). It also aided a spike in her world ranking to 36, nine places higher than where she finished 2010.
Having won her first singles title last year, she can be expected to repeat that feat more than once this year.
The remaining two players, Kanepi and Gulbis, have both gone through a number of struggles but seem to finally be putting those behind them with their tennis games benefiting.
After being touted as a player who could one day challenge for world no.1, Gulbis had been struggling to live up to expectations, with his concentration tending to lapse at critical times and his game lacking any consistency, seeing him bounce in and out of the world top. 100.
Enter new trainer Argentinean Hernan Gumy at the beginning of 2010 and Gulbis has finally begun living up to his potential, with his ranking only moving in one direction and his game beginning to show a lot more consistency.
Throughout 2010 Gulbis continued to mature. Having had the opportunity to beat then world no.1 Roger Federer in the opening tournament of the year in Qatar, the moment got the better of the Latvian with unforced errors slipping into his game, ultimately costing him the match. But later in the year, when he got the chance to redeem himself, he did not let it slip again, knocking off the former no.1.
Making the quarterfinals or better on seven occasions, Gulbis ended 2010 ranked 24 in the world. 2011 began strong for him, making the quarterfinals in his season opening tournament in Qatar and going one better in Sydney a week later, making the semi-finals. However, his tenure at the Australian Open was short lived, getting knocked out by the promising young German, Benjamin Becker, in the opening round.
It is always a stressful activity following the fortunes of Gulbis, but if early January is anything to go by, it is hoped Gulbis can feature in a number of finals this season and perhaps also make the final of a grand slam, something never before achieved in the men’s game by a player from the Baltic States.
At the beginning of 2010, Kaia Kanepi had already achieved so much more than any other female Estonian tennis player, but in February her future came into the spotlight when her sponsor, Tallink, withdrew their sponsorship of Kanepi, which also left her needing to find a new trainer. But to the credit of Kanepi she did not let it affect her game, winning her first ever Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournament, in Palermo, Italy, in July. By year’s end Kanepi had worked her way to 26th in the world, marking the sixth consecutive year that she has finished in the world top 100.
Kanepi’s off-court troubles also became resolved with Tallink once again on board by December, giving her some financial assurance and allowing to her to focus on her game.
Despite exiting the Australian Open in the second round, Kanepi picked up enough points to improve her world ranking to 17, the first time she has been in the top 20.
Now that Kanepi has entered the top echelon and with her sponsorship problems behind her, she has the ability to win a number of tournaments this year, especially if she continues to play in a high number of tournaments, something a number of other women’s leading players opt out of, instead focusing on a selected few tournaments.
This week all four players are taking to the court for the first time since the Australian Open. Kanepi and Sevastova will both play in the GDF Suez Open in France, where Kanepi enters the tournament seeded second while Sevastova is ranked tenth. Berankis is in the United States playing in the SAP Open in San Jose, where he is ranked 14, while Gulbis is playing in the ABN-Amro world tennis tournament in Rotterdam.