The Furious Zen of Kenin: Sofia's stunning run to the Australian Open

The Furious Zen of Kenin: Sofia's stunning run to the Australian Open

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said the 21-year-old, who will rise to No. 7 and become the highest-ranked U.S. woman following her victory of Garbine Muguruza on Saturday.

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“I don’t know what she’s upset about,” Chris Evert said with a laugh in the ESPN broadcast booth, as Sofia Kenin flung her left arm up in the air and shook her head in disgust.

The rest of us were wondering the same thing. Kenin had just won a point with a perfectly struck backhand winner. She was leading in the third set of her first Grand Slam final. For the past hour, she had played some of the best tennis of her young career to come back from a set down against Garbiñe Muguruza, her more experienced and accomplished opponent. Yet Kenin was playing in a barely controlled rage.

When she won the next game, she slammed a ball to the court and stalked to the sideline for the changeover. When she hit another winner, and the ball kids didn’t immediately have the ball back in her hand to start the next point, she threw her arms in the air impatiently. And after the most important game of the match, at 2-2 in the third set, when she hit five straight winners to come back from 0-40 to hold, Kenin celebrated by chucking a ball back over head—the gesture had more frustration than joy in it.

Call it the furious zen of Sofia Kenin. The 21-year-old American, who had never reached the quarterfinals—let alone the semis, let alone the final—of a Grand Slam event before, stunned everyone by beating Muguruza, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, to win the Australian Open last night. Along the way, the beyond-feisty Floridian may have invented an entirely new and more proactive mental approach to tennis.

Instead of trying to stay calm, the way you’re taught, Kenin got mad and stayed mad at herself—not negative, just mad. You know that scenario where a player receives a time violation, and then plays better because they’re taking their anger out on the chair umpire? Kenin played most of this final in that state, except that the person she was angry at seemed to be herself. We always tell players to be more aggressive with their shots; maybe we should also tell them to be more aggressive with their emotions. Even as she was closing in on the biggest win of her career, Kenin never looked nervous or uncertain. She never gave herself a chance to be.


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“Everything’s happening so fast for me,” said Kenin, who plays, as Mary Carillo once said of Steffi Graf, as if she’s double-parked. “I’m just still on cloud nine right now.”

“I did it with all the belief that I’ve had, all the efforts that I’ve done to get where I am right now.”

Despite being ranked No. 15 in the world and rising fast, Kenin had flown a little under the U.S. tennis radar over the last year. The talk had been about Serena Williams’ quest for 24, and Coco Gauff’s teen dreams. But Kenin beat Williams at last year’s French Open, and she ended Gauff’s run at the Australian Open last week.

While Kenin was born in Moscow, her story is as American as they come. When the family moved to the States, her father and coach, Alex, drove a cab in New York to make ends meet. Perhaps Kenin’s greatest achievement was overcoming her own status as a child prodigy and fulfilling all of her early potential. By 5, she was already famous for what she could do on a tennis court. That can be a recipe for disappointment later, and Kenin got off to a fairly slow start as a pro. For a time, it looked as if, at 5’7”, she would lack the power to stay on court with the WTA’s best players.

But while there are players who hit the ball harder than Kenin, few can redirect it as fluidly and consistently as she does. Against Muguruza, Kenin showed exactly how you handle a taller opponent and a bigger hitter. She made her move—up and back, and side to side. Kenin went to her drop shot early, and forced Muguruza to play through a series of long games to start the match. By the end of the first set, Muguruza was visibly winded. By the middle of the third set, she was struggling to stay in rallies as Kenin put her on a string and sent her scrambling from one corner to the other.

POST-MATCH PRESS CONFERENCE:

 

If anything, the bigger the point was, the better Kenin hit the ball. She converted five of her six break points, and saved 10 of the 12 Muguruza had. The decisive moment came at 2-2 in the third set. When Muguruza went up 0-40 on Kenin’s serve, it looked as if she was going to make a final push for the title. Instead, Kenin fired three down-the-line ground stroke winners, hit an ace, and held serve with a forehand pass. She wouldn’t lose another game.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. Everything is still just a blur for me,” said Kenin, who will rise to No. 7 and become the highest-ranked U.S. woman.

“I feel like I’m doing some great things for American tennis. It’s such an honor.”

If there’s a recent major-title run that this one resembles, it’s Jelena Ostapenko’s leap from obscurity to the French Open title in 2017. Like Ostapneko, Kenin came from a set down to beat a more experienced opponent in the final. Like Ostapenko, she did it with youthful moxie. Unlike Ostapenko, though, Kenin plays with consistency rather than hit-or-miss power. In theory, that should be easier for her to replicate in the future.

But this is no time to talk about the future. Kenin is here now. Frustration, impatience, anger: Kenin showed how far they can take a player. Hopefully, now that she’s the Australian Open champion, she’s happy with herself.