Kaia Kanepi, 32, became the first qualifier since 1981 to advance to the women’s quarter-finals with a 6-4 6-4 victory against Daria Kasatkina on Monday at the US Open, the last day of the Labor Day holiday.
The Estonian, who was a US Open quarter-finalist in 2010, has been plagued by injuries and illness in recent years and entered the tournament ranked No 418 and now plays Madison Keys in the next round.
Both were surprise results against players more fancied to win on this occasion.
It's very tough to believe where I am now after all that has happened. I didn't expect it Kaia Kanepi
Russia’s Kasatkina, 20, was the 2014 Roland Garros junior champion and had knocked out 12th seed and Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, 6-3 6-2, Saturday and had previously never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam.
A big-hitter off the ground from both sides, Kanepi kept her younger opponent on the run for the duration of the match, stroking 34 winners to Kasatkina’s 11 over the course of the 20 games.
Kanepi fell behind an early break to begin the opening set, but levelled the match at two games apiece with precise baseline hitting that left Kasatkina scrambling.
After breaking serve in a marathon game to lead 5-3, the Estonian promptly dropped her serve at love, but made no mistake as she replied with a love break in kind, stroking a pair of winners to earn the first set.
The second set saw Kanepi earn an early break, after saving four break points in the third game, but the young Russian worked her way back into the match after winning a titanic break with the Estonian serving at 4-2.
In a nine-deuce game, Kasatkina saved eight game points to get the match back on serve, but was unable to secure momentum much further, as the match ended with four straight breaks.
During the most improbable of her major runs, can Kanepi finally take it one step further?
“Now I am a great tennis player,” Kanepi said with a smile after seeing off Kastakina.
“I have always loved being in New York. Even after I went to Hawaii, I came two days to New York just to stay in the city.
“I wanted to be in the city. I like the atmosphere. I like being here. I love the courts and the climate, and I think that the courts suit my game really well.”
Kanepi, who was pushed to the brink of retirement by illness and crippling pain in both feet, added: “I’m amazed I’m this good.”
This time last year she was at home in Tallinn wondering if she would or even wanted to play tennis again despite having made five Grand Slam quarter-finals.
In 2016, she appeared in just one WTA event, in Rabat, losing in the first round before a battle with the effects of Epstein-Barr virus and then plantar fasciitis in both feet forced her off tour.
After passing her time by walking her dog Bossu, taking a vacation in Hawaii and racing cars on Finland’s treacherous ice roads, she decided to try tennis once more.
“In June last year, I didn’t care if I didn’t play tennis again,” Kanepi admitted.
“I just tried to live a normal life and enjoy it and slowly figuring out. But it’s very important to do what you love. If you do, then things will come.”
She got back into shape by training with with Estonia’s 2008 Olympic discus thrower Gerd Kanter.
Once she was fit, she returned to action, playing two second-tier ITF events in Estonia and Germany while failing to qualify for Wimbledon and Bucharest.
Using a protected ranking, she entered qualifying at the US Open and has not looked back, picking up her first main draw wins in the best part of two years.
“It’s very tough to believe where I am now after all that has happened. I didn’t expect it,” she said.
She will face Keys for a place in the semi-finals.
Keys upsets Svitolina
Fifteenth seed Madison Keys won the last four games to beat the 4th seed Elina Svitolina 7-6(2) 1-6 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the US Open in the last match of Labor Day Monday’s night session.
“It means the world to me to make the quarter-finals,” Keys said.
“Yeah, it was a really rough start to my year. This is just amazing. You know, I’m really proud of myself for digging deep and figuring that out tonight. It’s definitely more than just a win.
“So often a match like that could have gone really quick for me, and I could have lost that third set fairly easy, come off and been really disappointed.
“So the fact that I dug deep and I figured things out, you know, I came out with a win means a lot to me. More than that, it just proves how deep I can dig and how hard I can fight.”
Svitolina, 22, was one of the women in contention to become the World No 1 at the end of the tournament, but the loss eliminates her and now only Karolina Pliskova or Garbiñe Muguruza can earn the top spot at the end of this week.
Neither Keys nor Svitolina played particularly well in the first set, with each being broken twice before settling into the match on the giant Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
Keys held a 3-0 lead but the Ukrainian quickly tied the score 4-4, after which the American dominated the tiebreak, winning seven of nine points to take the first set.
Svitolina broke Keys twice and made three unforced errors to take the second set with relative ease.
Keys was down 4-2 before winning the final four games and ending the match with a backhand winner.
“I for sure got it from these guys who were behind me and they definitely gave me the energy boost that I needed,” said Keys, thanking the partisan crowd, most in attendance cheering on her comeback in the fourth set.
The 22-year-old American made the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2015 and the semi-finals at the Australian Open that same year, but had lost in the fourth round at the US Open in each of the past two years.
“I went from being down 5-0 in the second set to kind of just making a lot of balls and being tough,” Keys said.
“Yeah, I’m really happy with how I closed out the match today.”
“I definitely felt like I kind of hit a wall at the beginning of the second set,” continued Keys.
“My energy dropped. Once I got broken in the third, I just kept telling myself, Just try to figure it out, just get as many balls in as you can.
“I was lucky that I had an amazing crowd and atmosphere. They definitely helped me pull through in that third set.”
Despite the loss, Svitolina, who recently broke into the Top 5, has been one of the best players on the WTA tour this season with five titles.
Not only will this be the first US Open quarterfinal for Keys, but she will be joining three other American women in the final 8 – Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe.
The last time four US women were in the quarter-finals was in 2002.
“I’ve played on a Fed Cup team with all of them, including Venus. I was at the Olympics with all of them. So I think we’re all cheering for each other,” said Keys.
“To see Sloane coming back from a long injury, having to have surgery. I mean, Coco is always a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think anyone is totally surprised about that. Venus has made two slam finals.
“I’m not really surprised that anyone got this far, but I think we’re all cheering for each other, excited that there’s four of us in the quarters.”
Keys has played all of her US Open matches at night, so far this fortnight.
Asked if she is nocturnal, she said: ”I am, but not to this extent. Like this is a little insane. Going to bed at 4 a.m. every morning and waking up at 11, it’s not totally natural and normal.
“But now I’m afraid to, like, play in the sun because I haven’t done it in two weeks, so… I’m fine with playing at night.”
Her last match on Saturday night lasted a little past 1:30 am.
In the battle for the semi-finals, Keys will match up against No 418, qualifier Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, returning to the tour this year after recovering from an injury to her feet and a virus which is a precursor to mononucleosis.