DUBAI // Kaia Kanepi was voted Estonia's top female athlete of 2008. She knows that is not much to shout about and struggled yesterday to recall the names of those who challenged her for the honour. "I think there was a swimmer and a track and field jumper," said the 23-year-old as she celebrated the securing of an unexpected place in the semi-finals of the Barclays Dubai Championships after beating Elesina Vesnina, the Russian qualifier.
"There are not many sports stars in our country so I was a long way ahead," added Kanepi, who can attribute the award to becoming the first player from that nation to reach a quarter-final of a grand slam tournament - an achievement that came her way at Roland Garros in June when her encouraging run was ended by Svetlana Kuznetsova. Now she is two victories away from fulfilling a dream of a first WTA title, although she appreciates that is asking a lot considering who is likely to be waiting for her in the opposite half of the draw if she gets past Virginie Razzano, of France, in this evening's semi-final.
But as she proved in her third-round match on Thursday night when she bludgeoned an out-of-sorts Jelena Jankovic out of the tournament in straight sets, she is capable of beating anybody on her day. Overcoming the spirited Vesnina 6-3, 7-5 in a an error-strewn confrontation watched by a half-full stadium yesterday afternoon, had its significance. It took Kanepi into the world's top 20 for the first time. Unaware of that career landmark, one of her sport's later developers said she was pleased by the progress she is making and it was "another step towards my top 10 goal".
Kanepi made hard work of it, though, in the same way as she had struggled to close out her match against Jankovic the previous evening when she allowed the world No 3, who was having the "worst match of my life" to fight back from 0-4 in the second set to 5-5. Against Vesnina, a pretty blonde who was the obvious crowd favourite, Kanepi frequently failed to press home her advantage and looked like losing her grip on the their third career meeting until Vesnina's game fell apart towards the end of the second set.
Having been presented with a chance to serve for the match at 5-4, Kanepi's response was to drop her serve to love but Vesnina offered a second opportunity by serving just as badly in the 11th game. This time Kanepi made no mistake and on her first match point cast away the nerves to produce one of the trademark forehand winners that had embarrassed Jankovic in the previous round to raise her arms in a mixture of joy and relief.
It was difficult for me today," Kanepi admitted. "I didn't play my best game. I had many chances but didn't take them. But anything is possible from now on. As much depends on how my opponent plays as how I play." firstname.lastname@example.org For live updates from the women's semi-finals log on to thenational.ae/sport on Friday from 1.45pm