MELBOURNE–The first time two players meet: What does it reveal? How heavily is territory marked? Is it a chance to construct, or annihilate, a relationship with a new rival? Beyond matters of nation, age, and stage, is the tennis itself compelling? Cliché dictates the loser will learn much—what about the winner?
Questions, questions, questions. In their debut encounter, played inside a packed Melbourne Arena, Americans Sofia Kenin, 21, and Coco Gauff, 15, asked plenty of each other in a match that was engaging in its own right, but also offered a potential indicator of sparkles to come.
Today, it was the 14th-seeded Kenin who asked more questions and delivered better answers. After losing a 58-minute first set in a tiebreaker, Kenin took 71 minutes to win the next two, and the match, 6-7 (5) 6-3, 6-0.
“It meant a lot to me," said Kenin, who reached the quarterfinals of a major for the first time. 'I was just so happy to have won. It was a tough match. I knew she's playing well.”
Breaking Gauff’s serve in the opening game, Kenin was dialed in from start. This is no surprise. To steal a phrase once used to describe Stefanie Graf, Kenin plays as if she were double-parked. Regardless of outcome, between points, her stride is upright, poised, hasty as a detective arriving at a crime scene. Urgency and focus are the alpha and omega for this woman who launched her own website at the age of five.
“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.”
One Kenin tactic called for slicing her backhand as a way of forcing Gauff to generate pace off a retreating ball, rather than merely match the pace of a flat drive. Serving at 3-2, 40-15, Kenin carved a backhand slice down the line. Gauff grasped at it awkwardly and was unable to drive her crosscourt forehand with as much force as usual.
Granted more time, Kenin laced a forehand down-the-line hard and deep. Again, Gauff was off-balance, her crosscourt backhand going short and in the middle of the court. Kenin feathered a backhand down-the-line drop shot that Gauff could barely reach and flick into the net.
“I was getting to them,” said Gauff, “but I didn't necessarily play the drop shots right.”
But from 2-4 down, we saw again what makes Gauff an extraordinary tennis player. Nothing can make her back away. Two aces in that service game energized Gauff. In the next game, a trio of errors from Kenin put the two back on serve.
The 4-all game gave hope of what these two will bring in the years to come. A drop shot and a forehand winner helped Kenin go up love-30. Gauff responded with a sharp backhand and big serve to reach 30-all. Kenin earned two break points, squandering the first with a shanked forehand return. The second proved that Gauff, already a savant of sorts with tennis’ intangibles, has also devoted time to the tangibles. There came on this point a slice approach shot and a crisp forehand volley, a sequence worthy of Martina Navratilova.
“I think after my doubles, I was more comfortable going to the net," said Gauff. "You just have that doubles match where you get those tough volleys that you don't normally get in singles. It gives you more confidence.”
Serving at 4-5, Kenin regained her precision, but even then, at 5-6, Gauff sought to apply pressure in distinct ways, including a pair of rip-and-charge returns. Once in the tiebreaker, Kenin blinked, double-faulting twice. Still, not until her fifth set point did Gauff clinch the set. The crowd, heavily pro-Gauff, erupted. On came the music: “Twist and Shout.”
Practice Pass: Coco Gauff at the Australian Open—with flyover
In the second set, it was Gauff’s turn to buckle. Serving at 1-2, she struck three double-faults. Even though that game went to deuce, in time Gauff was broken. Fighting off a set point at 2-5 was a case of too little, too late. Sharp serving and sustained depth, particularly off the backhand, helped Kenin close out the 5-3 game at 15.
The stage was set for this first meeting to go sublime. Past 4:00 p.m. on Australia Day, the Melbourne Arena fans were alive in the kind of summer afternoon way you’d see at an American baseball game. Out echoed more music: “Dancing Queen”
As it turned out, all the dancing in the decider was done by Kenin. From the start, with Gauff serving, it was clear she was tired, frequently late, committing the cardinal sin of driving the ball into the net. After hitting 33 winners in the first two sets, Gauff struck only six in the third.
Though double-parked, Kenin wasn’t about to get a ticket. Having committed 13 unforced errors in the first set, she had only five in the second and four in the third. By the fourth game, the Gauff forehand was in a state of decay. Kenin capitalized, and soon it was over.
Having once again simultaneously exceeded expectations and become a headliner for the third consecutive Slam, Gauff reflected thoughtfully.
“I don't even think this is close to a peak for me,” she said, “even though I'm doing well right now. The goal is just really to get better, you know, have these good runs at tournaments, building up my experience and playing more tournaments just so I can be ready for matches like this today.”
Kenin’s next opponent will be another Grand Slam quarterfinal newcomer, the versatile Tunisian, Ons Jabeur. Said Kenin, who’s won three of their four matches, “She has really good hands. She's a tough player. It's not going to be easy.”
Coincidentally, following each of their wins today, Kenin and Jabeur—they’re friends—rode exercise bikes next to one other. Each asked the other if she was tired from her match. The reply was one you’d expect from a hardened competitor: no.
Once again, with trademark speed, Sofia Kenin had been asked a question and replied with a sharp answer.