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In Melbourne, Kenin becomes youngest American to win Slam since 2002

In Melbourne, Kenin becomes youngest American to win Slam since 2002

The 21-year-old defeated two-time major champion Muguruza in the final of the Australian Open.

How it happened: A set-by-by breakdown of Kenin's win over Muguruza
Drucker Down Under: With Australian Open win, Kenin’s roaring ‘20s have only just begun
Tignor: The furious zen of Sofia Kenin
Flink: Kenin becomes youngest American to win a Slam since Serena, in 2002


At the outset of the first major tennis tournament in a new decade, nearly every authority gave  seven to 10 women a serious chance to take the Australian Open title. But Sofia Kenin was not one of them. The 21-year-old American was ranked 15th in the world, seeded 14th and admired across the board by her colleagues for her pride, fighting spirit and professionalism. And yet, she had never been beyond the fourth round in any of her eleven appearances at the Grand Slam events. Even Kenin herself could not have imagined that she would realize such a large dream at this stage of her career.

As Kenin said in the presentation ceremony following her gritty, come-from-behind, three-set triumph over two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, “My dream has officially come true. I cannot even describe this feeling. It is so emotional and I have worked so hard. I am just so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true, so if you have a dream, go for it and it is going to come true.”

Who could not connect with Kenin after she expressed those sentiments? She had already celebrated some immensely gratifying moments across a stirring fortnight, upending the remarkable Coco Gauff—after her 15-year-old opponent had ousted defending champion Naomi Osaka—and coming through valiantly in the clutch to defeat world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty.

But frequently those who appear in a major final for the first time are insecure and out of sorts. The historical consequences on such lofty occasions often cripple or at least diminish even the most promising of players when they are making their final round debuts on the premier stages. But Kenin is a young woman of extraordinary tenacity and temerity. She does not shy away from a substantial challenge. No matter what the circumstances or how daunting the scoreline, she is indefatigable and unwavering. She is a sound striker of the ball with first—rate, all-around skills, but Kenin’s most admirable trait is clearly the size of her heart.

In moving past Muguruza to claim the crown, Kenin overcame a formidable adversary. In 2016, Muguruza cut down Serena Williams to win her first major at Roland Garros in 2016, and defeated five-time champion Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final a year later. She reached No. 1 in the world in September of 2017, and concluded that campaign at No. 2. But then she dropped to No. 18 by the end of 2018 and finished 2019 at No. 36.

In fact, despite her current status at No. 32, the Spaniard narrowly missed the seeding cut in Melbourne. But after losing a dismal 6-0 opening set in her first round match against Shelby Rogers, she pulled that match out in three sets. Taken to three sets again in the second round, she then rediscovered her finest form, eventually outperforming Simona Halep in a stellar semifinal performance. Many in the know felt the combination of her serve and a heavier ground game would carry her past Kenin to a third major title.

Kenin, of course, had other notions. The first set was hard fought on both sides of the net. In this clash held indoors, Muguruza’s initial apprehension was apparent. She trailed 0-1, 0-30. But the 26-year-old swept four points in a row with authority on serve, swinging much more freely. Uninhibited now, Muguruza broke through for 2-1 in a four-deuce game. Despite a pair of double faults in the fourth game, she recovered swiftly with back to back winners to reach 3-1.

Muguruza plainly had the upper hand at this stage of the contest. After Kenin held in the fifth game, the Spaniard battled from deuce to make it to 4-2, out-dueling Kenin in a 23-stroke exchange during that game, closing it with a backhand swing volley winner. Muguruza closed in on sealing the set when she went to 0-40 in the following game, but the American tenaciously fought off three break points there and later saved a fourth, holding on gamely in that seventh game. Down 15-30 at 4-3, Muguruza served consecutive double faults, and that transgression meant the score was locked at 4-4.

 

Yet, the Spaniard went right back to work. She broke in the ninth game, implementing a deep forehand volley to elicit an error from Kenin. Looking to secure the set, Muguruza missed only one first serve and held at 30 with controlled aggression. In 52 minutes, she had sealed the set 6-4.

But Kenin had raised her morale by turning what could have been a lopsided set into a much closer call. She was agitated, yet undismayed after making a go of it.

Muguruza, meanwhile, was visibly fatigued. Over the second half of 2019, after losing in the fourth round at Roland Garros, her match record was 1-6 through the end of the season, ending with a three-set loss to Kenin in Beijing. Although she played two warmup tournaments and won five matches in Australia prior to Melbourne, the fact remained that she was still perhaps not at her optimum level physically.

Both players held easily through the first three games of the second set, but Kenin broke for 3-1 as Muguruza missed five of six first serves and made weary looking errors in the process. A sprightly Kenin pounced, holding at 15 for 4-1. Muguruza managed one more hold in the sixth game but then Kenin took two games in a row to wrap up the set. Muguruza was not bending well for low balls. She was far too upright on most of her ground strokes. And the feeling grew that Kenin just might be ready to surge through the rest of the match.

But that was not the case. Mugurza—seemingly suffering from an ailing lower back—saw the trainer after the second set. That seemed to reassure her that playing on forcefully was not going to be a problem. The Spaniard stayed right with Kenin up until 2-2 in the final set. At that juncture, with Muguruza defending ably off both sides and coaxing errors from Kenin all the while, the Spaniard reached 0-40 in the crucial fifth game of that final set. A break here might have propelled Muguruza to victory.

 

But Kenin strung together her most inspired tennis of the match to hold on. At 0-40, on the 13th stroke of an absorbing rally, Kenin sent a backhand down the line bravely for a winner. On the eleventh stroke of the next point, Kenin connected again with a backhand down the line winner. Down 30-40 now, Kenin drove a forehand up the line on the eleventh stroke of the exchange, and it landed safely for a winner. An ace out wide at deuce, followed by a forehand crosscourt passing shot winner, pushed the American into a 3-2 lead. In that magical game, she had collected five points in a row. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Initially, Muguruza did not appear to be shaken. She advanced to 40-15 in the sixth game with an ace out wide, only to lose the next four points—giving away the last one with a double fault. Kenin had improbably taken two critical games in a row from deep deficits to reach 4-2. She held on for 5-2. Once more, she struck back boldly from behind in the last game. Serving to stay in the match, Muguruza released two aces on her way to 40-15, but self-destructed with consecutive double faults for deuce. Kenin reached match point with a backhand winner driven behind Muguruza, but the Spaniard rallied for deuce. The reprieve was brief. Kenin arrived at match point for the second time with a cracking forehand crosscourt return winner. Muguruza was by then spent, double faulting the match away. Victory had gone deservedly to Kenin 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. She had made good on five of six break points, connecting with 74% of her first serves, winning an impressive 65% of her second serve points, and making only 23 unforced errors across three sets—22 less than Muguruza.

Kenin has established herself as the youngest American woman to win a major since Serena Williams in 2002. She will rise to a career best No. 7 in the world on Monday and will surely put herself in a position to win more of the premier prizes. As Muguruza said after the match, “Congratulations, Sofia, you played an incredible match and an incredible tournament. You deserve the trophy. I think we are going to see you play [win] more titles for sure.”

For her part, Kenin was still trying to absorb what had just happened to her. Making this kind of history so soon was not only fulfilling but also astonishing. But what she did was not an accident or a lucky streak; it was a reward for many years of dedication to her craft and a willingness to stretch herself to her limits. As Chris Evert said with conviction, “Kenin is not a flash in the pan.”

I could not agree more.