MELBOURNE—While exiting the grounds early evening on an Australia Day that turned from warm to rather chilly—unsurprising since Melbourne, reputedly, can have four seasons in a day—fans chugged beers as they watched the action in the cozy Grand Slam oval a few feet from Rod Laver Arena.
One was overheard heard saying to another, “Can you believe Coco lost?”
It was a reference to the charming 15-year-old capturing the hearts of the world, Coco Gauff. But to those in the know, the simple answer would be, “Yes.” This author didn’t bother to interject, by the way.
For, even though Gauff’s future is as bright as the yellow cricket, soccer and Davis Cup jerseys perennially worn by locals at the Australian Open, she ran into another American child prodigy destined for great things, Sofia Kenin.
And a more seasoned one.
Kenin’s 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 victory—she inflicted the second bagel on Gauff at a Grand Slam, after Naomi Osaka—served as an extension of what was a fabulous 2019 for the 21-year-old.
A spot in a maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal was thus always coming in 2020 and the 15th-ranked Kenin will be favored to keep progressing when she meets unseeded Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur on Tuesday.
Kenin collected 49 wins last season, tied for fourth most on tour, and this achievement probably didn’t receive as much ink as it should have. Kenin topped Serena Williams, along with 2019 Grand Slam winners Bianca Andreescu, Ashleigh Barty and Osaka.
Ponder that for a second.
The other Slam winner, Simona Halep, you ask?
In their lone duel, which came before Kenin fully took flight, she nearly ousted Halep here at the Australian Open 12 months ago.
“You beat Serena Williams? What else, you can just die right there,” Kenin’s father and coach, Alex, told a pair of reporters Sunday, punctuating the comment with a hearty laugh. “If you just think about it, it comes from a different level. It’s unreal. It happened. I think she’s getting a lot of confidence from that.”
A lot of hype surrounded Gauff, which Alex noted. He called Gauff a “good girl” who was “playing well," but added she had "a lot of holes" in her game and all the buildup "is not healthy.''
But the elder Kenin hoped his daughter got more of the spotlight.
“I think hype should equal accomplishments and that would be fair,” he said. “It’s regarding to my daughter comparing the amount of coverage she has and she has accomplished much more.”
Kenin herself was asked thrice in her press conference about flying under the radar and admitted, responding to the last question, that it provided motivation.
“I want to show who I am, show my best tennis, show why I'm there, why I belong,” said Kenin. “I'm doing that.”
Kenin certainly showed it against Williams in a performance that encapsulated her. She is tough as nails, unwilling to back down, and with a game to match.
Despite facing one of the greatest athletes ever, Kenin offered up roars of “come on” a la Lleyton Hewitt in the third-round French Open clash. Debate all you want about Kenin taking extended glances at marks on the clay that day, but she was unfazed by the increasingly involved crowd, or making a 23-time Grand Slam winner wait. She played the match on her own terms.
For that competitiveness, Kenin has drawn comparisons to her idol, Maria Sharapova, though moving to Florida from Russia at a young age under the stewardship of her dad and honing her skills under a prominent coach, in her case Rick Macci, fosters the notion.
Gauff said of Kenin, “She definitely put a lot of balls in the court. She's quick. Also her dropshots.”
All of which are true.
Kenin is an aggressive player who hugs the baseline and expertly uses her opponents’ pace to generate power. Her backhand down the line and inside-in forehand particularly catch the eye, yet don’t forget about her ability to handle forehands at shoulder height.
How her game has developed since losing to Sharapova at the US Open in 2017, when Kenin largely counterpunched. Back then, she immediately moved back after striking her serve and adopted a more conservative return stance. Kenin couldn’t rally against Sharapova, but did so against Gauff when others who relinquished a break lead and lost a first-set tiebreak in Melbourne folded.
Case in point: Wang Qiang, who upset Williams on Friday. Wang led Jabeur 4-1 before losing the tiebreak and fading in the second set.
Kenin’s mental toughness seems to run in her family.
“I guess both of us are pretty stubborn people,” said Alex. “Normally her mom is a pretty tough cookie. I’ve been married to her for a long time so I know first hand. But that helps sometimes,” he added with a smile.
At this stage of her career, Kenin appears more comfortable chatting about tennis than anything else. Asked to discuss what she does to chill out away from tennis, she reverted to tennis.
When her dad was asked a similar question, it brought a completely logical reply.
“First of all you need to point out when she’s not playing, because it’s a lot. It’s hard to get away completely.”
Later, he added, “She’s funny. She’s maybe, sometimes too funny,” he said with another laugh. “She’s interested in movies, things that all the girls like, Instagram, Facebook and in my opinion sometimes think have value. They don’t. But that’s her age. She’s acting her age.”
But living an atypical life for a 21-year-old, traveling the world and playing in some of the biggest sporting arenas in the world.
If Kenin downs Jabeur—the latter said Kenin was a “nice person outside the locker room”—and she leads their head-to-heads 3-1, tougher tests loom in either Petra Kvitova or Barty in the semifinals. Despite the win over Barty in Toronto, the current world No. 1 won their three other 2019 contests while Kvitova prevailed over Kenin in Madrid.
Barty’s variety proves difficult to overcome and Kenin can still be overpowered, as evidenced by the reverse to Kvitova, a lopsided loss to Danielle Collins in Adelaide and two defeats last year to the big-serving Viktoria Kuzmova.
But who is to say Kenin won’t win it all in Melbourne after her continued upward trajectory?
Dad, though, played down expectations when told there were only three matches to go.
“Three matches…it’s big matches,” he said.