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Sofia Kenin's fearless—but never reckless—play ousted Serena Williams
The 20-year-old Floridian embraced the chance to play the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion on the French Open's Court Philippe Chatrier.
Published Jun 01, 2019
“It took a lot of emotions,” Sofia Kenin said when she was asked how she had pulled off her 6-2, 7-5 upset win over Serena Williams at Roland Garros on Saturday.
A lot of emotions, as well as a lot of big serves and bold ground strokes; a lot of leaps, bounds, fist-pumps, and facial expressions; a lot of break points earned and break points saved; a lot of boos and whistles from the crowd; and a lot of late-match jitters kept, just barely, at bay. But Kenin, a 20-year-old Energizer Bunny from Florida who moves as quickly between points as she does during them—she never seems to stop darting and spinning—had all of that and more on Court Philippe Chatrier. Even her opponent, who has seen plenty of tennis in her day, was duly impressed.
“She just played literally unbelievable,” Williams said of Kenin. “She just really went out there today and did great.”
From the start, Kenin took the match to Serena, who was slow out of the gate, and who only could only sporadically match her countrywoman’s intensity. Kenin stood her ground at the baseline, and went after every ball that came her way—not recklessly, just aggressively. From the middle of the court, all options seemed to be available to her: she hit winners to both corners and from both wings, she wrong-footed Serena with her deceptive two-handed backhand, which she can pull crosscourt at the last second, and she finished points with cleverly disguised, high-percentage drop shots. Kenin won 72 percent of her first-serve points, and when Serena began to find the range on her second serve, she smartly began to take a little off of her first ball. Kenin was broken just once.
“When you play Serena, you’ve got to control all the points, you’ve got to dictate because she’s gonna take control of the points,” Kenin said.
We’ve seen that kind of hitting from Kenin before; what was surprising, at least to me, was her movement on clay. Her lone WTA title, and all but one of her ITF-level titles, came on hard courts, yet Kenin slid across the dirt like she had been doing it all her life—and unlike most of her fellow Americans. She slid to defend, but she also slid to attack, moving into the court to cut off the ball early and rob Serena of time.
Serena was on her heels at the start, and struggled to read which way Kenin was going to fire her next bullet. But Williams slowly found something approaching her range, and by the second set she was connecting on her serves—she finished with 10 aces—and returns. She also sent a few of her customary stares and roars in her opponent’s direction, as the crowd rallied to her side, and rallied against Kenin. When Serena finally broke—in a seven-minute, four-deuce game—to level the second set at 3-3, and then slammed down an ace to hold for 4-3, a comeback win, and maybe a bagel third set, seemed to be on the horizon. Instead, Kenin calmed back down and reasserted herself.
“Yeah, I did feel some death stares there,” Kenin said. “But I tried not to over think it and do what I needed to do and do what I do best.”
Serena, who made twice as many errors as Kenin—34 to 17—said she felt far from her best. That’s not surprising, considering she played just once on clay before coming to Paris. To try to avoid the same problem at Wimbledon, she said she might take a wild card into a grass-court tune-up event.
Serena will be back; she still has sights set on Grand Slam No. 24. But today belonged to Kenin, who embraced the chance to play Serena, and play her on Chatrier.
“I think there was a ‘Wow’ moment when I went on the court against Serena,” Kenin said. “I love the crowd, I love playing in big stages.”
“I knew i just had to show the crowd, like, ‘Listen, Sonya Kenin is in the house.’”