Let’s face it, life’s unfair. At the peak of her career, Monica Seles was stabbed in the back. Martina Navratilova could have won 15 Wimbledons and she still wouldn’t have been as beloved as the sporting darling Chris Evert. Spain’s David Ferrer was a fabulous player, but he played in the shadow of a fellow named Rafa. A recent New York Times headline read, “Roger Federer Will Always Be the Greatest, Even If He’s Not.” You get the point.
After Sofia Kenin downed Ons Jabeur in the Australian Open quarterfinals, her dad Alex said she’s been undervalued and overlooked for her whole career.
That’s true. Sofia is a banger, a fighter. She has a lot of shots, but not all that much grace. Often her visor covers her eyes, as if she were a thoroughbred. Between points she stalks about the court with an intense gait only Steffi Graf could match.
Her mindset is, “Win, baby, win.” She’s from a mold more like Ivan Lendl than the warm and fuzzy wing of tennis that’s produced players like Kim Clijsters. Her shots don’t have the appealing flow of another young Floridian – Amanda Anisimova. And, goodness, Sofia’s not Coco Gauff.
Yes, she began when she was three and a half and has incredible eye-hand coordination. She dominated throughout the juniors. But she’s not a star-is-born phenom. Last spring, when the 20-year-old beat Serena at the French Open, the tennis world didn’t go crazy. The reaction was tepid compared to the fireworks that exploded after 15-year-old Gauff beat Venus in the first round at Wimbledon.
In a flash, charismatic Coco popped into the mass culture. She met with Michelle Obama and was on the cover of Teen Vogue and many a tennis magazine. She got tweets from Snoop Dog. Beyoncé’s mom sang her praises and she got career advice from the late, great Kobe Bryant.
But, not to worry. Her dad Alex noted, “This girl has everything, all the shots that other girls don’t have.”
That’s a dad’s exaggeration. But Kenin is a force to be dealt with. Last year she climbed to No. 12. Not only has she scored wins over Serena and Coco, she’s beaten Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty. She has no fear. She pounds. She adjusts. She finds a way. And the media machine will soon step up.
In the last three rounds at the Australian Open, Sofia has taken down the young icons of three lands: American Gauff, Tunisian Ons Jabeur and the immensely popular Ash Barty, who millions of Aussies were hoping would give their tennis-crazy land its first Slam in four decades.
It didn’t happen. The born-in-Moscow, reared-in-Miami fighter didn’t let it happen. Never mind that at first she was sluggish and nervous. It wasn’t easy dealing with 102° heat, a stadium packed with Aussies and the little detail that it was her first Slam semi. The intense counterpuncher didn’t have much punch. Her shots were modest. After Chris Evert said Kenin “seemed frozen out there,” Pam Shriver quipped, “That’s the only thing that’s frozen out there.”
After a tight start, the front-running Barty gained two first-set set points. But Kenin is a great mid-match manager. She clings, she adjusts, she has variety, she finds a way. Her on-point focus is uncanny. Her serve was strong and she gained rhythm on her return. At crunch time Sofia blasted a brilliant forehand. Barty netted a simple volley and Kenin seemed to steal the first set.
Of late, American women have been doing well here, and in Slams all over the world. A US woman has reached the semis of 20 of the last 22 Slams. Seventeen American women have won here in the Open era.
But Barty is No. 1 for a reason. Often wise Brad Gilbert advised Kenin to attack Barty’s backhand: “That’s seven days a week and twice on Sunday to attack her on that.” But the Aussie’s backhand lit up. She broke Kenin, raced to a 5-4 lead and, as in the first set, had two set points.
Yet it’s not easy to win a Slam on your home turf. Just ask Amelie Mauresmo or Sam Stosur. Barty’s serve went awry and Kenin rebuffed both of Ash’s set points. Soon the Floridian took flight. That rubbery bounce in her step at last appeared. She hit out with freedom, power and merciless depth. In one stretch she won nine of ten points. She controlled the middle of the court and imposed her will.
A Barty forehand flew long, and a fantasy Kenin had long imagined came true. Her 7-6, 7-5 win booked her a place in a Slam final. The 21-year-old, whose dad came to America with $286, could bank $2.86 million if she wins Saturday’s final against Garbiñe Muguruza, whom she beat 6-0, 2-6, 6-2 in Beijing in September.
“Not everyone gets to live this moment, live this dream,” Sofia gushed. “I’m just really grateful…This is so exciting, literally butterflies…I know people haven’t really paid attention to me…I had to establish myself – and I have. Of course, now I am getting the attention, which I like, I’m not going to lie… My phone is blowing up…I love the attention.”
Indeed, tennis at last has come to love her.