Hitting without fear, Kenin puts Barty on her back foot in Toronto win

Hitting without fear, Kenin puts Barty on her back foot in Toronto win

The relentless 20-year-old recorded her first victory over a world No. 1 on Tuesday in Toronto.

When Sofia Kenin was asked what the key was to her 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4 win over top seed Ashleigh Barty in Toronto on Tuesday, the American answered in her usual no-nonsense way: “With her, you gotta fight for every point.”

For most of Barty opponents this year, that has been a losing battle. Before today, the Australian had lost just six times in 2019 in her meteoric rise to No. 1. Barty wins because she can do more things with a tennis ball than virtually anyone else around. Flat serves, kick serve, drive backhands, slice backhands, swing volleys and old-fashioned punch volleys: She can hit them all equally well.

But as Kenin showed today, it’s also possible to keep Barty from using the wide variety of shots at her command. Just as her fellow hard-hitting American Alison Riske did at Wimbledon, Kenin beat Barty with pace and accuracy in rally after rally. Her game wasn’t as stylish or effortless or varied, but she stepped forward and hit without fear. Kenin was on and off all day—she led in the first set, only to lose it in a tiebreaker; she led 4-0 in the second set, only to lose three straight games; and she led 4-1 in the third before letting Barty get back to 3-4 again.

Kenin secured her first victory over a world No. 1 on Tuesday in Toronto. (Getty Images)

The key for Kenin was that she never stopped trusting her shots, and she never stopped using her serve to stop Barty’s momentum. While each woman hit a similar number of winners and errors, the decisive stat was Kenin’s 74-percent first serves in. She didn’t hit a lot of aces, but she moved the ball around in the box and forced Barty to start the points on her back foot.

And that’s where the Aussie stayed. Unlike Kenin, Barty never relaxed on her own ground strokes, never felt free enough to uncork her topspin forehand or throw in her biting backhand slice, or even to get to the net, where she’s much more comfortable than Kenin. While Barty has all the shots, and she has used them well this year, it’s also possible to handcuff her and contain her.

In this match, and in her loss to Alison Riske at Wimbledon, too many points were decided on her opponent’s racquet. She is now at risk of losing her No. 1 ranking, as Naomi Osaka only needs to win her opener Wednesday to guarantee a change at the top. Karolina Pliskova is also in the running, needing at least a semifinal showing to have a shot.

Barty will likely start trusting her shots again by the U.S. Open. But it’s Kenin who moves on in Toronto, and who takes over the top seed’s draw. This was Kenin’s fourth win over a Top 10 opponent—she beat Serena Williams at the French Open—and her first over over someone in the Top 5. You gotta fight for every point on the ever-deeper WTA Tour these days, and that’s one thing Kenin has no problem doing.