The 19-year-old was playing on the court where the great Helen Wills and Grand Slam winner Don Budge once reigned. But, not surprisingly, she had heard of neither. Still, Sofia “Sonya” Kenin showed incredible “Will”-power and her considerable foe – Nicole Gibbs – couldn’t “Budge.” The Floridian prospect of Russian heritage broke the Stanford grad and former NCAA champ six of eight times, unleashed mighty backhands and delivered a string of drop shot winners as she raced to a 6-0, 6-3 win to capture the $60,000 Berkeley Tennis Club Challenge.
Seemingly under the knowing eye of the Claremont Club up the hill, and with many a fan wearing Cal apparel, Kenin sprinted from the starting gate. French players, like Amelie Mauresmo, like to encourage themselves by saying “Allez! C’mon!” For the American with the Russian blood, today it was “Da! C’mon!”
Bay Area favorite Gibbs, who was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, couldn’t shake free of the kid’s grip. Gibbsy howled in frustration. Her head dipped. When a key volley at crunch time flew long, she looked at her racket and asked, “What’s wrong with this?” After she failed to retrieve yet another one of her foe’s truly nasty drop shots, she muttered, “Just one time.” Later, she said Kenin had the best drop shot she’d ever seen, that she was bound for the top 20, and that it was impressive she could come from Wimbledon and win here.
Kenin reached the semis on grass in Mallorca a month ago and won a round out on Court 17 at Wimbledon. Plus, she already has wins over recent Top 10 player Caroline Garcia and star of the future Daria Kasatkina. She says her Russian heritage helps her with her toughness and that her backhand and drop shots are her strengths. Now ranked No. 65, she says her goal this year is to make the top 50.
One of Gibbsy’s strengths is her political gutsiness. Few are more outspoken then the Stanford grad and former NCAA champ. She recently told the New Yorker that she speaks up because, as Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Gibbs explained to IT, “At the end of the day, tennis is a game and we are fortunate enough that we can use it as a platform and what you do with that is what is meaningful about your career. So the more I can remain outspoken and give voice to the issues that I think are important, the happier I will have been with my career.”
Gibbs agrees with Billie Jean King’s view that every generation has to fight for freedom and democracy, adding, “It’s easy to get complacent when you are the recipient of all the hard work that Billie Jean and her peers did to pave the way. But we have to make sure we’re vigilant and stay on top of it – make sure we are advocating for ourselves on tour.”