Australian Open 2023: Kim Birrell’s upset win over 29th seeded Kaia Kanepi changes the life of the 24-year-old

Three years ago, Kim Birrell worked for Tennis Australia’s promotional team at the Australian Open. On Tuesday she won her first round match. LINDA PEARCE reports.

A lengthy hiatus following a second round of elbow surgery meant Kim Birrell, a communications student at Griffith University, spent the summer of 2020 in Tennis Australia’s publicity department rather than in the players’ dressing room.

So how would she present her own story to potential readers?

“Ooooh I think I’ve been through a lot and through all of that I’ve had a really positive attitude and mindset and I’ve never lost sight of where I’m from and I always want to give something back to tennis because I’m basically in grew up in the tennis community,” Birrell told CODE Sports before taking a break.

“Is it good?”

Maybe add a little about how this is the (re)start of something at the age of 24 we propose to the lovely world number 167, one of only two Australian women to make it to the second round of the Open have done.

Her surprise in the first round against Kaia Kanepi came after the 29th seed served 5-4 in set number two for the match 462 days after her last Slam match win in extreme heat at the Kia Arena, and will be a career best sub guarantee -150 ranking and richest ever payday of at least $160,000.

“Definitely far from done,” she adds to close the narrative sale. “I feel like I have the ability to get into the top 100 in 2023 and I hope it’s only going up from here.”


Birrell expected she would have to get a fourth big peloton the hard way.

Through qualifying, where she lost in the finals last year.

Until the wildcard originally given to Venus Williams, following the American’s injury withdrawal, was reassigned and awarded to a homegrown player who was so surprised it overpowered her immediately.

“I think for (Venus) it’s just a small thing not to play, but for me to get a chance to play in a big slam especially the money can be life changing so I’m quite grateful,” she said a well-stocked media room.

“I didn’t expect that at all. I cried like a baby and it was such a beautiful moment.”

If she doesn’t necessarily agree that it was the stroke of luck that struck her after two elbow surgeries and with a ranking still rolling in the 700s a year ago, Birrell is happy to discuss what it took to get to this point to return after reaching the third round while still borrowing her mother’s car in 2019.

“I worked my ass off just to get back on the court with rehab. There were a few moments when I didn’t think it was going to happen,” says Birrell.

“No matter how resilient you are, rehab is really tough when you do it for a year and a half. So there were times when I wanted to give up, but I’m really glad I didn’t. Yes, just so happy.”

In late 2021, Birrell came closest to leaving; confident that she could return to the court but ambitious enough to be unsure of what level her compromised serve would allow and if she would be happy at a lower level.

“I had to think really hard about whether it was worth playing and knowing I wasn’t going to be at my best.”

She decided to try.


Birrell, a former junior semi-finalist who made her Senior Open debut in 2016, had reached the age limit for Tennis Australia coaching assistance when she left the modest ITF circuit again this year after investing financially in a batting partner and with her 22-year-old brother Cade, another touring pro.

There were many small tournaments and unspectacular destinations. Tunisia. Portugal. Not earning enough to cover expenses so what a difference that money will make.

“I loved it, but it was a stress I hadn’t felt in a long time because I was constantly in deficit every week,” she says.

“I’m very aware of all the sacrifices my family and boyfriend have made.

“We both live at home with my mum and dad so I guess I had the savings to be able to move out but not knowing what’s next if you have injuries and want the money saved too reinvesting in myself and being able to have a coach with me on the road and stuff like that.”

Selection. Decisions. Both in life and in sports. some hard.

Flight, accommodation, meals.

To stop. Keep going.

Birrell constantly sought her parents’ guidance so she could just focus on and trust her tennis, eventually spending a few months traveling with just her boyfriend Matt to save money.

“Then late last year I crawled back to my dad and said, ‘I need help!'” she admits with a laugh.

“He and my mom ran a tennis center for a long time and he taught me how to play tennis and he’s a really good coach when I decided to listen and I listened!

“So I have to give him a lot of credit because he’s doing a really good job of helping me, tennis-wise but also mentally. Nobody knows me better than him and we can read each other’s minds sometimes so I’m grateful and I’m trying to convince him to tour with me this year.”


With Jaimee Fourlis joining fellow wildcards Storm Hunter and Talia Gibson on the losers list and Birrell so stubbornly taking on the former world No. 15, we were urged to flip through the record books to find out when was the last time there wasn’t more than an Australian in the third round.

Year: 2016. Player: Daria Gavrilova (now Saville).

Two is still a tiny number, of course, as 20-year-old Olivia Gadecki faces a jump in quality in her next round against former teen star Marta Kostyuk, who eliminated Amanda Anisimova in the opening round.

John Birrell, a professional tennis coach who was working when his daughter was born in Germany, once ran Pat Cash’s tennis academy and long ran the local Queen’s Park Center in Southport, where the likes of Sam Stosur and Bernard Tomic were regulars, he says calmly , but.

Never in doubt once she won the second set, he quipped, aware of his battling daughter’s good record in three-set matches.

Did you tell her afterwards?

Kim wasn’t so sure.

“All in one day’s work,” he quipped to CODE Sports after the game in the sweaty shadows of the Kia Arena, then more seriously, “Oh my god.”

The heat has been more helpful to Birrell than the oddly hatless Kanepi, whose Estonian homeland is only a fraction less tropical than Gold Coast summers.

“It’s pretty warm, isn’t it? And tomorrow it will probably snow in Melbourne,” says Birrell senior.

Spoken like a real Queenslander.

And on Tuesday a proud and emotional one.

“Oh I had to fight back tears because we know what she’s been through and how disciplined she is and how much work she puts in, so you feel emotional when your kids do that don’t you? That’s great and she deserves it.”

Maybe we need to brush the cobwebs off this pass, we think, because it’s time to get back on the road.


While Stosur competes in doubles and mixed doubles in her farewell Australia, Birrell, multiple Sam Stosur medalist (yes, that’s a Gold Coasters thing), will be eliminated on Thursday by Czech talent Linda Fruhvirtova, minimally unnerved in round one by Fourlis would.

Even Fruhvirtova admits she’s surprised not to meet the older Kanepi.

Instead, it’s Birrell, who turned 24 in Tunisia in May, which wasn’t as bad as she expected and the tournament even gifted her a cake. Nice gesture.

“We are still being looked after very well. It’s just that all the flights and everything gets so expensive and the prize money isn’t very big,” she says.

“I mean, there’s nothing quite like playing in a Grand Slam. Because I had my protected ranking last year, I played a big mix of 15Ks and 25Ks and then I went to a WTA (tournament). So I’ve really seen the difference in terms of the hotels and physical therapists and things like that.

“So I definitely hope I can play at that level for more weeks.”

A few more laps here will do for now.

This would be both extremely satisfying and rewarding, and also an easy promotional spot for a budding communications graduate.

Linda Pearce

Linda Pearce, finalist for the 2021 Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award, is a Melbourne-based sportswriter with over three decades of experience in newspaper, magazine and digital media, including 23 years at The Age. One of the first women in Australia to cover VFL/AFL and cricket, she has won media awards across a range of sports – including internationally, as the recipient of the ATP’s 2015 Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award. A tennis specialist who has covered over 50 major tournaments including 13 Wimbledons, Linda has also covered two Olympic and two Commonwealth Games, as well as multiple World Championships in Gymnastics and Water Sports and five World Netball Championships. Australian Open 2023: Kim Birrell’s upset win over 29th seeded Kaia Kanepi changes the life of the 24-year-old

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