February 1, 2020

Sofia Kenin: Under the Radar and Now on Top

Ladies and gentlemen, we officially have a brand new Grand Slam champion.

As you doubtless know by now, the women contested their Australian Open final Saturday with the unlikeliest of players reaching the final -- Spain's GarbiƱe Muguruza, a two-time Major champion and probably the favorite despite being unseeded this fortnight, had trounced Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep on her way to the championship, and fifteenth-ranked Sofia Kenin powered through a quarter that included Serena and Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Coco Gauff, and by some weird twist of fate, didn't face another seed until the top one, Ashleigh Barty, in the semis. But after dropping the first set, the American, playing in her first Slam final -- she'd never gotten further than a fourth round before -- was able to find her game and take advantage of every opportunity to score the win and ultimately lift the trophy.

The victory says a lot about the talent and potential of the young Kenin. Her unusual service motion and end-of-game ball spikes notwithstanding, she's a smart counterpuncher, runs down every ball and finds corners when she needs to.

But she wasn't paid much attention to in the early rounds of the tournament -- after her defeat of the much more visible Gauff, her father bemoaned the fact that sometimes the spotlight gets focused less on players who've arguably accomplished more. There's something to be said for that -- nothing against Coco, of course -- the fifteen-year-old has had an amazing six months, with wins over top players and even a trophy to her name. Kenin on the other hand, six years Gauff's senior, amassed three titles last year, albeit at small-ish events -- the highest-ranked player she beat at them was then-#12 Anastasija Sevastova -- and has been quietly scoring a list of Big Game wins at higher-level tourneys -- Serena at the French Open, Barty in Toronto, Osaka in Cincinnati. And until this week, she was a relative unknown outside the tennis world.

But perhaps Kenin was able to thrive exactly because all eyes weren't on her. After all, she was able to keep her head under some trying circumstances Down Under -- the crowd was not rooting for her in her matches against either Gauff or hometown favorite Barty, but she wasn't deterred. And in the final, she twice was able to come back from 0-40 to hold serve and then break her opponent. It's not the kind of fortitude you'd expect to see from someone playing her first Grand Slam final. In fact most who lose the first set in their debuts can't come back to win the trophy -- if I heard the announcers correctly, Kenin became only the second player to do so in some fifty chances -- the other being Jelena Ostapenko, who stunned Halep to capture her first career title at the 2017 French Open just days after she turned 20.

Of course, things are going to be different now -- now that she's a Major champion and will be a top-ten player, Kenin's going to be on everyone's radar. Whether she can do as well in the spotlight as she has out of it -- well, we'll find out soon enough. But something tells me this girl has the goods to be around for a long time. And I can't wait to see what she does next.

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