“I’m super excited—it was a tough match,” the 21-year-old American said afterwards. “She was playing well, but I worked hard in the preseason on my fitness, and I’m feeling confident right now. I’m so happy.”
Two days after a hard-fought fourth-round win over 15-year-old countrywoman Coco Gauff, Kenin was back on court against Jabeur, another first-time major quarterfinalist. Jabeur had taken out a slew of big names in Melbourne, including Caroline Wozniacki, who was playing her last tournament.
Tuesday’s match between Kenin and Jabeur ended in straight sets, but it was anything but routine, particularly early on. After Kenin jumped out to a 3-1 lead, Jabeur caught up to 3-all, and after Kenin went up a break again for 5-3, she needed six set points to finally close out the opening set.
There were long, grueling games to start the second set as well, but Kenin grabbed the crucial break for 4-3, and eventually closed it out after an hour and 32 minutes after one last Jabeur forehand error.
Kenin, who was the higher-ranked player of the two by far (No. 15 to No. 78), was asked in her press conference after the match about how she kept her composure on such a big occasion.
“I haven’t experienced being in the quarterfinals, so I tried to somehow handle my nerves,” she said. “I kind of assumed I was the favorite, but I try not to let that get in my head, just play point by point.
“She’s a really tough player. I knew she was going to come out playing strong. She’s had really good matches here, good wins. It wasn’t an easy one, it wasn’t an easy battle. All respect to her.”
Kenin, who was born in Russia but moved to the US when she was a baby, was one of 22 American women to start in the draw - she was the only one in the last eight, and now she’s in the last four.
“Yeah, it’s exciting,” she said. “I’m happy. I’m doing this for myself, I’m trying not to think about being the last American - but of course it’s an honor, it’s a privilege. I’m happy to be where I am.”
In the semifinals, Kenin will face world No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, who saved a set point in the first set tiebreaker before easing past 2019 finalist Petra Kvitova in Tuesday’s second quarterfinal, 7-6 (6), 6-2.
Barty leads their head-to-head, 4-1, with Kenin’s one win coming in Toronto last summer.
“I’ve played Ash a few times,” Kenin said. “I’ve played a lot of big names, but I don’t think I’ve played anyone big in their home crowd, so it’s going to be a different atmosphere, obviously.
“But it’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Jabeur was the first Arab woman ever to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, and even the second week of a major. She’ll break the Top 50 for the first time next Monday.
“She’s an unbelievable player,” Jabeur said of Kenin. “I had to run every ball. She didn’t give any free points. Not a lot of mistakes, which was tough. But that’s what quarterfinals are like in Grand Slams.
“I mean, I’m happy with the tournament. The good news is that I have so much work to do still. Hopefully I can come back stronger and be able to do better next time.”