Child prodigy Kenin gains experience from U.S. Open debut

by: Nina Pantic | September 06, 2015

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The 16-year-old will get another shot at the U.S. Open in the junior tournament this week. (AP Photo; Below photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK—Child prodigies are used to the hype, but few have embraced that hype as much as Sofia “Sonya” Kenin. Since age five, she’s had her own website, dedicated to chronicling her budding tennis career. “[It] helped me, I think, for people to see who I am,” Kenin says.

Those who follow the sport closely know Kenin, the No. 1-ranked girl in the 18’s division and the No. 9 junior in the world, through that website—sonyakenin.us—the many articles written about her by journalists, and, of course, her results. For while attention has followed this prodigy since she was in kindergarten, none of it has fazed her, with success coming early and often.

Last December, Kenin won the prestigious Orange Bowl, and this year she added the International Spring Championships to her collection. But this week marked her biggest professional milestone so far. The 16-year-old played in her first Grand Slam main draw with a wild card she received by winning the USTA National Hard Court Championships earlier this summer.

She lost that match to world No. 98 Mariana Duque-Marino, 6-3, 6-1, but Kenin, who will play in the girls’ junior tournament at Flushing Meadows, embraced the opportunity.

“I was having fun out there with fans cheering me on,” Kenin says. “It was such an amazing experience. It’s unfortunate to have lost, but I’ve worked really hard and I knew it was going to be tough.”

The Russian-turned-American emphasized “experience” as the best part of earning her spot amidst the world’s best, as well the privilege of being shuttled around in the tournament’s private cars.

Born in Moscow, the Kenin family moved to the United States when Sofia was a baby. While neither of her parents played tennis, she began swinging a racquet at the age of five. “My parents say I was playing with balls as a baby, and I didn’t like Barbies,” Kenin says. “I went on court and everyone saw I was different.”

Heralded coach Rick Macci noticed Kenin’s raw talent early on, and she began training in south Florida. At six, she was on the cover of ADDvantage magazine. She began competing at the age of seven, and won the “Little Mo” National Girls' 10 title soon after.

Perhaps Kenin is so comfortable in the spotlight because she was lucky enough rub elbows with the game’s stars early on. As a 5-year-old she toured the Crandon Park Tennis Center with Kim Clijsters. At 7, she hit with Anna Kournikova, and also played in exhibitions alongside John McEnroe and Jim Courier. On Macci’s website, a young Kenin is seen lifted up by Todd Martin beside Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati. “I remember braiding Kournikova’s hair, it was really fun,” Kenin says.

Based in Pembroke Pines, Fla., the homeschooled 10th-grader trains and travels with her dad, Alec. While many eye the father-daughter coaching relationship skeptically, the teen insists it’s working well. She occasionally plays practice matches at the USTA training center in Boca Raton and trains at Pro World in Delray Beach.

“College is an option, but I would like to play professionally,” says Kenin, who has retained her amateur status. “If I’m playing really well then I’d go pro.”

Kenin owns a WTA ranking of No. 754 and reached the final of an ITF Pro Circuit Futures tournament in Gainesville, Fla. earlier this year. After the Open, she plans to play more professional tournaments, as well Eddie Herr and the Orange Bowl.

The talk was talked early on in her life, and so far, Kenin has definitely walked the walk. The next question is her destination.

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