“Surely you would not want my autograph,” she says hesitantly. But they do. You are a winner now, the Estonian champion. For the next 14 years, signing the familiar AK everywhere will be a part of your routine.
It is early July 2009, the day of the Estonian tennis championships. A 13-year-old Anett Kontaveit surprises (almost) everyone in women’s singles by dispatching her first two opponents and then the tournament’s highest-ranked player Julia Matojan in the final 6-3, 6-1. Just two years earlier, she had been the ball girl, and now she is signing autographs for them.
Never mind that Kaia Kanepi, Estonian number one at the time, did not participate. Neither did Maret Ani and Margit Rüütel, both local top players and winners on the ITF circuit. You can only beat what is in front of you, as the saying goes. But everyone watching knew that Kontaveit was different. Capable of conquering the world.
“I want to get to the top in tennis. At least the top ten,” Kontaveit dreamed. She might have been No. 13 in her age group at that time, but in late 2021, at the age of 25, she fulfills her goal. Over the summer of 2022, she climbs to No. 2 in the world for eleven weeks. Her career earnings amount to more than 8 million dollars. She made it to the very top of tennis.
But on June 20th, 2023, Kontaveit announces retirement at just 27. Her career ends much, much earlier than it should have, with so much left to achieve. The world of sports can be really cruel at times.
Kontaveit was just six years old when she first gave her finger to tennis. From the age of nine, she – together with her mother Ülle, who was training her – focused on the sport. Soon after the Estonian national title, Kontaveit rose to international prominence by winning her first ITF tournaments and the legendary Orange Bowl youth competition in 2011.
In 2015, at just 19 years of age, she made the 4th Round of the US Open. In 2017, her first WTA final and title followed, while she also defeated world No. 1 Angelique Kerber at the Italian Open 6-4, 6-0. The steady climb continued.
Her best Grand Slam result preceded the Covid-19 pandemic when she reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open 2020. And then, in 2021, everything finally clicked mentally after hiring Dmitry Tursunov as a coach. Between Ostrava 2021 and Stuttgart 2022, she won 22 straight indoor games while making nine WTA finals in 13 months. She climbed to No. 2.
Maybe it was fate that when Kontaveit made her last WTA final in October 2022, it had to happen in Tallinn – at the very same tennis centre where she first became Estonian champion 13 years earlier. At the expense of Kanepi in the semi-final, their first competitive meeting. At a tournament that most likely was a one-off for Estonia. Only this time there was no fairytale in the end, with Barbora Krejcikova beating Kontaveit 6-2, 6-3.
“Today, I announce that I am retiring from my career as a competitive athlete,” Kontaveit said via a press release on June 20th, 2023. She had taken time off, but this was nothing new in the world of sports. Now most were flabbergasted. As for the why …
“After several doctor’s visits and consultations with my medical team, I have been advised that I have lumbar disc degeneration in my back. This does not allow for full-scale training or continued competition. Therefore, it is impossible to continue at the top level in such a highly competitive field.”
To explain in simple human terms, lumbar disc degeneration is a condition rather than a disease, meaning it can not be fixed with just rest and/or medication. The wear and tear of professional tennis takes its toll on the lower back, and trying to fix or even replace these discs is a complicated procedure. The condition is continuous, painful, and hard to grasp for those who do not have it.
Later in a press conference, Kontaveit explained that she has had back issues for quite some time now. Despite taking a break at the end of 2022 and another one early in 2023, she has not found help. “I’ve tried different variations, talked to physios, done months of exercises, but my back hurts in every game. I’m not able to maintain the level I want,” Kontaveit said.
The thank you
Can we fault someone for not wanting to be mediocre? We have seen Kontaveit struggle. On her day, she can still take on anyone, but when matches are longer, her level of playing deteriorates visibly. The condition is unpredictable and can not be controlled for any prolonged time.
It would be easy to say that athletes have overcome injuries that are much more severe. Maybe there is something else that we do not know. After more than 20 years holding a racquet and travelling from hotel to hotel, maybe she would like to enjoy some time off. Maybe she lacks the hunger, but even if that would be true, so what?
This is her career and her decision. Putting your health first, whether physical or mental, is nothing to be sniffed at. She has been a model professional for the past decade, a shining example for many young tennis players. Offerer of joy. A true national hero.
Is this the end of the road for Kontaveit? Time will show. Kanepi had issues of her own and pretty much retired in 2016 due to health issues, only to return full-time and make the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2022. She is still going strong at 38 thanks to teaming up with physiotherapist/wonder man Indrek Tustit, listening to her body, and picking her fights.
Maybe, just maybe will this not be the end for Kontaveit. A mere stop on the way. But for now, let us enjoy her at Wimbledon one more time knowing that this is it. She deserves everything and more after pushing the limits and making us proud. Thank you, Anett.