MELBOURNE—Once again, Sofia Kenin crashed a party. Sunday, Kenin derailed precocious Coco Gauff. Tuesday, she ended the run of Ons Jabeur, the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament. But those two victories occurred in distant neighborhoods.
What happened today was profoundly and painfully local. Kenin took on 25 million people, the Australian tennis proxy known as Ashleigh Barty, on a mission to become the first Australian woman to win this title since 1978. If you’re familiar with Chris O’Neil, please take a seat at my tennis geek roundtable.
O’Neil remains the trivia question answer. In a remarkable display of tenacity and problem-solving, on a day when the on-court temperature exceeded 100 degrees, Kenin beat the first-seeded Barty, 7-6 (6), 7-5. Said Kenin, “I'd like to first apologize to all of the Australian fans. I know they wanted her to win. It's not easy for them.”
“At the end of the day she played the biggest points well,” said Barty. “I was scrapping and trying to find what I wanted to do best and came within a couple of points of winning the match. Yeah, sometimes it falls your way, sometimes it doesn't. That's just sport, that's life.”
Some upsets surface instantly. The challenger opens with a series of crackling winners; or, the favorite donates one error after another. That wasn’t the case today. Barty opened with her usual mix – well-placed serves, accurate forehands and, with exceptional disruptive intent, carving slice backhands crosscourt as a way to extract errors or weak replies from Kenin.
Kenin served at 2-3, 15-30 and drove a down-the-line backhand that a challenge determined was millimeters wide. All seemed on-course for Barty to break serve and the party to continue. At 15-40, Barty’s slice backhand found the net. Ditto at 30-40, Kenin maintaining superb focus through a 13-ball rally. Two points later, Barty held an ad but was stymied by a 96 mph Kenin serve to her backhand.
Slowly, but far from surely, the plot began to emerge. Be it an ace, a rolling forehand, or stiletto-like slice, were tennis a judged sport, Barty was the one who would earn the style points. But she was also leaving territory open, coming to net only 11 times the entire match (and winning but three of those forays), perhaps in hopes that her versatility was all it took to coax Kenin into miscues. This misjudgment proved fatal.
Unfortunately for Barty, every time she took a lead, she was never able to shake off Kenin. With Kenin serving at 2-4 in the first set tiebreaker, Barty fielded a 95 mph serve and hit her forehand return into the bottom of the net. Serving at 4-3, Barty sprayed a forehand approach shot well long.
But with Kenin serving at 4-5, Barty struck a forehand inside-out return winner to earn two set points. On the first, a slice backhand went into the net. On the second, this one on the Barty serve, Kenin went on the offense, crushing a backhand return crosscourt that opened up the court for a forehand winner. Said Kenin, “I felt like I was just really trying to focus on cutting down any unforced errors because, I mean, I'm playing world No. 1, I'm playing Ash, who is playing really some solid tennis. I knew she's not going to give any free points.”
At 6-all, Barty – at heart, tight the entire tiebreaker – hit a meager down-the-line drop shot. In dashed Kenin. Barty lobbed, but Kenin put it away. On set point for Kenin, a Barty forehand return found the net. Kenin hadn’t just won the first set. She’d stolen it, the party crasher who’d scooped up a full plate of shrimp, olives, chips and that rare bottle of wine.
“Every player is complicated,” said Barty. “Every player is unique. Every player is different. Even when she's as confident as she is, I know I need to go out there and play my best. I wasn't able to quite do that today.”
In the second set, Barty started to look more sure of herself. She broke Kenin at 1-1 when the American drove a backhand long. Serving at 3-2, 15-all, Barty carved a pair of slice backhand winners reminiscent of the great Australian, Ken Rosewall. She went up 4-2 and then served for the set at 5-4, 40-15. Surely, the intruder would soon be dispatched by the rather tasteful host.
Kenin fought off the first set point brilliantly. A sharp crosscourt backhand opened up the court, giving her the chance to strike a short backhand and a subsequent volley winner. Barty played the second set point horribly, badly missing her first serve, then playing passively before spraying a down-the-line forehand long. Twice in two sets, the favorite had held set point and emerged empty. “I was fighting,” said Kenin. “I left everything out all on the court.”
For all Barty’s weapons, Kenin was the one who’d taken charge, be it with depth, movement and, most of all, exemplary concentration. “She has the ability to adapt,” said Barty. “She has the ability to try different things, control the center of the court. I felt like she was able to do that today. Too many times she was on the inside of the court, I was trying to kind of configure my way back into points.”
From those two set points down, Kenin won 11 of 12 points. Barty served at 5-6, love-30. The party crasher hadn’t just gobbled up all the food. She was about to repaint the house. “When I'm going on court, I'm there to win, I'm there to do my job,” said Kenin. “I'm doing my best. I don't know what else I can say.”
At 15-30, another errant Barty forehand. Two points later, Kenin rolled a crosscourt forehand hard and deep. Barty’s reply sailed long.
In a rare twist on the post-match press conference, Barty addressed the media with a smile. It helped that she was also holding her infant niece, Olivia. Said Barty, “perspective is a beautiful thing. Life is a beautiful thing. She brought a smile to my face as soon as I came off the court. I got to give her a hug.” It’s quite a contrast to the attitude shown by many players on these occasions.
By reaching the final, Kenin will be No. 9 in the world next week. A victory will put her two spots higher. Her opponent will be another surprise finalist, unseeded Garbine Muguruza. Their only previous meeting came in the first round of Beijing last fall, Kenin winning it by the wacky score of 6-0, 2-6, 6-2. Said Kenin, “She's playing some really good tennis right now. She's had some great wins. She's not easy. She's really aggressive.”
But Muguruza was off in the future. For a moment, Kenin wanted to reflect on the past, on that young girl from Florida who had been obsessed with tennis since near-infancy and dreamed of moments like the she’d had this afternoon inside Rod Laver Arena.
“I watched all the Grand Slams when I was younger,” said Kenin. “Australia, Melbourne, I love the city. The crowds, the people are just so friendly. I enjoy my time here. Yeah, of course it's even more special since I'm in the finals. Yeah, I just love it here. The atmosphere, it makes you love playing in this type of atmosphere. The fans get so into it. They're cheering. It's really just exciting.”
Effective this Thursday afternoon, Kenin’s party crasher days are officially over.