Guts, will, courage, strokes, shots, youth – the kid has it all. Sofia Kenin is fearless. But why? Maybe it’s the Russian thing. Players from the land of Czars and Soviets, Putin and Sharapova, are everywhere in our sport.
Svetlana Kuznetsova told us, “We fought World War II with knives.” Kenin’s dad, who after an eight-year struggle got out of the Soviet Union with little English and a big dream, wanted to give his daughter a better life. Boy, did he.
The burly, brave guy who has a twinkle in his eye was a New York driver who has adeptly driven his daughter to unthinkable heights. First we saw her as a shy, wide-eyed six-year-old being shown around the Miami Open by the motherly Kim Clijsters, who said, “It’s great to see the future of tennis. Who knows, she might be one of the new big stars.”
Once a perennial junior champion, she beat Serena at the French Open and rose to No. 12. Her dad Alexander said, “It’s amazing what you do when you have to survive.”
Kenin’s not tall – just 5’ 7”. She doesn’t have a knock-your-socks off serve. Her service motion is a no-look adventure. Others’ strokes on the tour may be a tad more fearsome than hers. But she creates angles, she defends well with slices, her drop-shot can be wicked, and that backhand of hers, it punishes. She opens the court. And she’s got grit and guile. USTA Player Development chief Martin Blackman told IT that her fight was like Rafa’s.
But Kenin’s rise came in the wake of an irresistible media darling – Coco Gauff. And Kenin – a Moscow-born, Miami-reared master blaster – would have to win the fame she so craved with her own grit and her own game. Then again, she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
In 2017 an elegant lob by an elegant lady hung in the French sky for what seemed to be an eternity, until it looped down and caught the baseline. In a flash, tennis had a new queen – French Open champ Garbiñe Muguruza. And the reared-in-Venezuela Spanish star went on to win the 2018 Wimbledon.
Muguruza was on the road to dominance, right? But her coach Sam Sumyk was cautious. “They all say, ‘This one should be the next dah, dah dah – blah, blah, blah.’ But until it’s done, you have all these expectations.” And for 18 months Muguruza’s career fell off a cliff. Some dared to say she was in a coma. She became more famous for her F-bomb-laden exchanges with coach Sumyk than any for court triumphs. Her ranking plummeted to No. 36. She became glum. Her laughter vanished. The what-have-you-done-for me-lately cruelty of the sport was eating her up. She lost in the first round at both last year’s Wimbledon and the US Open. Here, for the first time since 2014, she came into a Slam without being seeded.
Never mind that she had at last hired a user-friendly coach, the newly minted Hall of Famer Conchita Martinez. As if on cue, the struggling veteran lost the first set of her opener against Shelby Rogers, 6-0. Now her only hope was to become the first man or woman to lose the first set of a Slam and win the tourney. But Muguruza beat Rogers and downed three top-ten players, No. 9 Kiki Bertens, No. 5 Elena Svitolina and No. 3 Simona Halep to reach her fourth Grand Slam final against a 21-year-old kid playing her first Slam final.
The big woman with big strokes hit big, consistently deep ground strokes. Garbiñe stepped in and fearlessly took the initiative, controlled the middle of the court and put the Grand Slam final rookie on the run. Muguruza quickly broke to go up 2-1. She prevailed in a marathon 23-stroke rally and seemed to have Kenin on a yoyo as she took the first set 6-4.
Sofia spiked balls into the court, flung towels, gestured in frustration to her dad – yet she hardly blinked. She admitted she was devastated, but she knew “I needed to somehow forget what happened.”
Kenin doesn’t go away. She reloads. She’s a force of nature. She plays with a chip on her still very young shoulders. Some couldn’t help but wonder whether her will was up there with the likes of Monica Seles, Steffi Graf and, dare we say, Serena.
Solid off the ground and making few errors, Kenin kept the pressure on as she won three straight service games at love. Garbiñe’s serve faltered and a flat Kenin backhand forced a volley error as the Floridian broke to go up 3-1 in the second set.
Kenin’s greatest gift then kicked into gear. The kid doesn’t blink. Just ask Serena, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu or Victoria Azarenka. And don’t forget that, in the semis, Kenin saved two break points in both sets against the home-standing Aussie icon, Ash Barty – the No. 1 player in the world. Sometimes Sofia looks mechanical. But she’s not. She is methodical. With almost a hint of pride, she concedes she is stubborn and feisty. Her dad says the key is that “She hates to lose.” She’s like velcro. She doesn’t go away.
What went away was Muguruza’s rhythm and her fire. Her body started to ache with the pain of two long weeks. Her serve dipped miserably and break points were agonizing. She converted only two of the twelve she gained; Sonya won five of her six. Perhaps, most of all, she had a sinking feeling. The Good Ship Kenin was about to sink Garbiñe’s Spanish Armada.
But after the two first-time Aussie Open finalists got to 2-2 in the third set, Garbiñe made her move, and went up 0-40 on Sonya’s serve, in a mind-boggling game tennis will long remember.
Though down three break points at crunch time, Sonya realized that she was on fire. She knew she wanted “to take the beautiful trophy…I had to take my chance. I had to be brave playing a two-time Grand Slam champion. I needed to come up with my best shot, [the] five best shots of my life.”
Kenin stroked two stunning backhand winners and, just to balance things out a bit, a sweet forehand. In a blaze she won five points in a row. What a stunning get-out-of-jail surge. As the slightly confused Boris Becker once said, she displayed “steels of nerve.” And she proved Jim Courier’s claim that “Going for the lines is a talent.” Kenin had delivered punishing jabs to her foe’s chin. The bigger heavyweight didn’t know what hit her. Sofia poignantly noted, “That game will be with me forever.”
Okay, that was the comeback of her life and she was now up 3-2 in the third. Still, the 21-year-old knew well that she had to cool it and calm down. No problem. Sonya raced to a 5-2 lead. Then the reeling Spaniard hit three double faults in the final game, including on match point.
Kenin, who’d had to accept being far under the radar as Coco Gauff lit up the media, gladly handled the unhappy fact that her big moment of triumph in her 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win came as a result of Garbiñe’s anti-climatic fail. After all, Sonya, who was the youngest Australian Open finalist since 2009, the top-ranked American and the youngest US player to break into the top ten since Serena in 1999, got what she wanted: a big check that meant she would soon head to Cartier, and the glory the immigrant’s kid craved.
Still, she was stunned when the interview room overflowed with writers who offered her a champagne toast and peppered her with OMG questions. Later she would sigh when she realized she had to do yet another round of interviews. One was tempted to whisper, “Be careful what you ask for.”
But not on this night, when a 21-year-old achieved her dream – the American dream.