With Australian Open win, Kenin’s roaring ‘20s have only just begun

With Australian Open win, Kenin’s roaring ‘20s have only just begun

The 21-year-old refused to be pried off the ledge, clawing her way back from a set down to win her maiden Grand Slam title over Garbine Muguruza.

How it happened: A set-by-by breakdown of Kenin's win over Muguruza
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MELBOURNE—The record will show that Sofia Kenin took two hours and three minutes to beat Garbine Muguruza, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the finals of the Australian Open.

No one buys records anymore.

In the spirit of the digital age, this match was decided by two games that lasted 11 minutes.

It was 9:25 p.m. when Kenin served at 2-all in the third set. Muguruza had closed out the previous game with an overhead winner. An annoyed Kenin dropped her racquet to the ground. The crowd inside Rod Laver Arena had favored each, Kenin as the scrappy underdog, Muguruza as the resurgent past Slam winner. But perhaps this leveling of the decisive set signaled the moment that Muguruza, in her fourth Grand Slam final, would summon the card of experience versus a player who’d never been this far at a major.

Certainly the 2-all game started that way, Muguruza’s heavy groundstrokes eliciting a netted backhand for love-15. A long Kenin forehand for love-30. Next, a facile short ball to the forehand, lined into the net for love-40.

Then came the opening scene in the Sofia Kenin biopic.    

A 13-ball rally, closed out with a laser backhand down-the-line winner. At 15-40, another untouchable backhand down the line.

30-40. After opening up the court with a series of crosscourt drives, a forehand down-the-line winner.

Deuce. A wide slice serve ace, 90 M.P.H.–only Kenin’s second ace of the match.

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With an ad for the game, Kenin was pressed into her forehand corner by a crosscourt Muguruza forehand. Her response was straight out of USTA League Tennis: a down-the-line slice. Muguruza drove her backhand deep and advanced to the net. Another slice, carved severely enough that Muguruza grasped awkwardly for a backhand volley, making it easy for Kenin to whip a crosscourt forehand passing shot.

“Five best shots of my life,” said Kenin. “I mean, let's go. It got me to win a Grand Slam. All right, I'll take it.”

Muguruza served at 2-3 and went ahead 40-15. From there, three straight errors off highly makeable groundstrokes flew off her racquet. Break point down, a double-fault. 

It was now 9:36 p.m.

Having cracked open the match, Kenin did not merely run it out. She sprinted it out. Serving at 4-2, she quickly she went up 40-love, holding at 30.

“I've played on big stadiums,” said Kenin, who last year at Roland Garros beat her idol, Serena Williams. “I feel like that helped me to get to where I am right now. I love the big stages. That's where I'm playing. I'm playing to play on that great stage, have this amazing atmosphere.”



Said Muguruza, “The way she handled the breakpoints and the game points, these kind of moments, I think she came out doing winners, which is a tough moment. I think she played very well.”

Muguruza served at 2-5, 40-15, in hopes of at least pushing Kenin towards that always suspenseful ritual of serving out a match. But then came two double-faults and Kenin’s 15th backhand winner. On the first championship point, Kenin was long with a forehand return. At deuce, a crackling crosscourt forehand winner return, worthy of Graf. 

Then, the worst possible ending: a double-fault. 

It rained all day in Melbourne. A closed roof seemingly tipped the scales in Muguruza’s favor, creating a cozier, element-free environment for her brand of flat, deep, linear tennis.

“I felt pretty good before the match, excited to really go out there,” said Muguruza. “I really like the center court. The crowd makes it cool also.”

Muguruza’s power led one to believe she held the fate of the match in her hands. But Kenin held it in her head, smothering Muguruza with energy and footwork. As this 21-year-old American brilliantly demonstrated tonight, how hard you hit the ball is but one skill set. 

Tennis matches also hinge around matters of time and space. Which player can better take away the other’s reaction time, be it Muguruza with her power, or Kenin with her ability to strike the ball early? 

Space can also be defined as court management. Who will better conserve her side of the court? And who will push the opponent into awkward positions of the court? 

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Finally, there is the subtle art of time management—how in between points, the player creates a tempo for herself and weaves a web around an unaware opponent; ironically, Muguruza’s coach, Conchita Martinez had been masterful at orchestrating lengthy interludes. In all these intangible but meaningful disciplines, Kenin was in charge—if not instantly, certainly eventually.     

Crackling tempo and ceaseless engagement are Kenin’s core attributes. She refuses to be pried off any ledge and concurrently conducts herself with exceptional urgency. Long before that incredible 2-all game, Kenin might well have won this match when trailing 2-4 in the first set. Down love-40, she clawed her way out of that deficit and broke Muguruza for 4-all. 

Though Kenin would lose that first set, it was clear that even the significance of playing her first Grand Slam final did not intimidate her. 

“She's had so much experience,” said Kenin. “I knew I needed to somehow forget what happened, just move forward and just keep believing in myself.”

Nature or nurture? This is especially tough to answer when you take into account that by the time she was five years old, Kenin’s father, Alex, was convinced she could be a pro. Either way, she has that indefinable X-factor that separates great competitors from proficient ball-strikers. Along the way to this title, she’d beaten another ascending American, Coco Gauff, as well as the local favorite, world number one Ash Barty.

Meet the world number seven and America’s new No. 1. Sofia Kenin’s roaring ‘20s have only just begun.