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The Story Behind The Picture: Sofia Kenin's underrated variety
Call the Australian Open champion's penchant for variety a form of instinct. But also know this definition of instinct: trained knowledge.
Published May 06, 2020
Welcome to Underrated Week! From May 4 through 8, TENNIS.com is focusing on the most overlooked aspects of the sport, from stats to achievements to tactics, and beyond. We're also featuring 10 players because of something they do extremely well, but which isn't their signature quality. It's a series we're calling the Underrated Traits of the Greats.
The racquet face clearly indicates what Sofia Kenin is about to do to the ball. She’s preparing to hit a shot rarely seen in contemporary women’s tennis—a slice backhand.
When it comes to a technical evaluation, the Kenin slice backhand is scarcely as elegant as Ashleigh Barty’s carefully sculpted stroke. Nor is it likely to bounce millimeters off the ground, a la Stefanie Graf’s highly stylized slice. Nor will it be deployed with the stiletto-like accuracy of the approach shot that helped build Martina Navratilova’s trophy case.
But with this slice, Kenin will surely accomplish something. For that reason alone, there is much to be learned about a lesser-recognized, pleasing dimension of the 2020 Australian Open champion.
The Kenin slice is not merely a form of desperate retrieval, though that has value too. Better yet, it will force her opponent to address the ball from a slightly different contact point than the customary flat drive. While the American’s fellow pros are too skilled to spray the incoming slice wide, long, or into the net—the way such spin can affect recreational players—there’s the possibility they will not be able to inflict as much damage to Kenin as they would versus a flat ball. Maybe. And in that word “maybe” is revealed Kenin’s deceptive asset. She is not simply a hitter. She is a problem-solver. Heck, Kenin is even willing to occasionally toss in a slice forehand, a shot that last enjoyed widespread popularity circa 1935.
Juxtapose Kenin with other players. The ball-striker is a familiar tennis archetype, easily recognizable, appraised by his or her ability to generate pace. Stroke production is what the aspiring youngster first learns, often directed by a parent who probably never played tennis but studied it closely enough to mimic technique—particularly, the contemporary game, which over the last 40 years has emphasized concussive groundstrokes. Kenin was taught this way too, on many an early Florida morning, through the hot afternoon, into evening, fed ball after ball by her father, Alex. Watch, turn, hit.
But beyond that, how does someone build a playing style? At one level, it’s as random or expedient as the geographic convenience of a nearby instructor. From his base in Southern California’s South Bay, Robert Lansdorp has taught hundreds his beloved brand of flat, penetrating groundstrokes, including four who became No. 1 in the world—Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova. For Kenin, the local wise man was Rick Macci, the longstanding Florida instructor who has worked with such power baseliners as Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters.
Or there might be a WTA or ATP competitor that young player finds particularly engaging—for such random reasons as wardrobe, manner, a notable match witnessed at a formative stage. Recall the trip the 10-year-old Justine Henin took with her mother to the 1992 Roland Garros final between Graf and Monica Seles. Then there was four-year-old Madison Keys, inspired by Venus Williams’ dress. In Kenin’s case, there was Sharapova, another Russian who had migrated to Florida.
But the real mystery is where the tactical acumen comes. Perhaps, that youngster plays a great many practice matches, coming up against a wide range of playing styles. A colleague and I once spent an hour listening to Martina Hingis explain how from ages seven to ten, she competed versus all shapes and sizes—kids her age and older, adults with everything from big forehands to wacky drop shots, doubles galore and so on. As each style posed a question, Hingis’ job was to come up with answers.
Much as Kenin admired Sharapova, it’s clear that the older Russian’s relentless firepower wasn’t quite the right fit. When did Kenin recognize that the occasional sliced backhand or even forehand would alter the flow of a point? Like most contemporary pros, Kenin is proficient at opening up considerable court space with crisp groundstrokes. But what makes her so willing to frequently close out rallies with the drop shot? What role will the volley play for Kenin?
As her career continues, it will be fascinating to hear Kenin’s thoughts on how she learned not just to hit, but to see—to understand the court, her opponents and interpret how she needed to go about the business of competing. But even then, words might not do Kenin’s keen court sense justice. Call her penchant for variety a form of instinct. But also know this definition of instinct: trained knowledge.
UNDERRATED TRAITS OF THE GREATS: Roger Federer—Winning ugly | Simona Halep—Boldness | Rafael Nadal—When to come to net | Sofia Kenin—Variety | Pete Sampras—Movement | Serena Williams—Plan B | Novak Djokovic—Forehand versatility | Chris Evert—Athleticism | Daniil Medvedev—Reading the room | Naomi Osaka—Return of serve
RANKINGS: The five most underrated tennis stats | The five most underrated No. 1s | The five most underrated Grand Slam runs
YOUR GAME: Why mental strength is underrated | Five underrated tennis tactics