The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: Sofia Kenin

The 21 & Under Club, 2020 Edition: Sofia Kenin

Unlike so many promising athletes, Kenin's hype—she worked with Rick Macci as a junior, and was around top players at a young age—never derailed her focus.

As we reveal this year's edition of The 21 & Under Club, we'd like to call your attention to Team Luke Hope for Minds, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports families with children who have suffered an acquired brain injury. Headed by former Texas Tech tennis coach Tim Siegel—whose son, Luke, suffered severe head and chest trauma from a golf cart accident which resulted in an anoxic brain injury—Team Luke Hope for Minds has lost numerous fundraising opportunities throughout 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about the organization, and for information on how to donate, go to teamlukehopeforminds.org


WTA Rank: No. 4
UTR Rank: No. 11
What she's done since last summer: Won the Australian Open

Many people on this planet aren’t entirely sure what they want to do with their lives. Kenin is not one of them. Driven by a singular focus—winning tennis matches—she makes no bones about her lofty goals.

“I really want to become No. 1 in the world,” Kenin said in March 2019, while ranked No. 33. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. The next goal is to win a Grand Slam.” 

Less than a year later, Kenin accomplished one of those goals, winning her maiden major at the Australian Open. In doing so, she became the youngest American woman since Serena Williams in 2002 to win a major. The WTA’s 2019 Most Improved Player will soon need to reassess her goals. 

Unlike so many promising athletes, Kenin's hype—she worked with Rick Macci as a junior, and was around top players at a young age—never derailed her focus. She was always the No. 1-ranked American player in her age group, and at 21 is now the top-ranked American in the world. 

“Back then, I came right out and said Sofia was the scariest little creature I’d ever seen,” Macci told Christopher Clarey of the New York Times. “It was unique: the hand-eye coordination and her ability to take the ball immediately right after the bounce. I have a lot of kids do that, but it was almost like it was baked in already, even though she was little and the racket was actually bigger than her. The only player I’ve seen like that is Martina Hingis.”

Kenin doesn’t own a Serena-like serve, Lindsay Davenport’s raw power or Kim Clijsters' explosive movement. In addition to her world-class backhand, her mind is her primary weapon. She has an extremely short memory—a desirable quality for any pro athlete—and regularly finds ways to win points and matches she shouldn't. She plays her finest tennis in the throes of an old-fashioned street-fight.

In her brief WTA career, Kenin has thrived playing the underdog role, but will now need to adjust to life with a massive target on her back. Goal set.


Strengths

Before we get to the GIFs, a word from Andy Roddick, who has said he doesn't watch too much professional tennis these days. But it didn’t take too long for him to notice Kenin’s off-the-charts tennis IQ:


Rarely, if ever, will Kenin walk onto the court with the lesser backhand. Oftentimes she will run around her forehand to redirect her backhand inside-in or inside-out. What makes this shot so effective is its unpredictability. She can hit it anywhere with the same exact swing. 

Kenin is just as comfortable roping her backhand well inside the court as she is from behind the baseline. This down-the-line backhand winner against Coco Gauff, hit from a few feet inside the court, is undefendable.

What makes Kenin so special, according to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, is her ability to attack the ball above her shoulders. Players are typically taught to hit the ball within their strike zone, but Kenin has expanded hers unlike any other player. She begins her swing when the ball looks like it's a few feet above her head, and makes contact at or above her head.

Here, Gauff tries to buy some time by hitting a high ball, but Kenin steps into the court and crushes a backhand winner from shoulder height. 

Someone who can take the ball on the rise and well above their shoulder is a nightmare to play. Across the board, the best players make their opponent uncomfortable by taking time away.

Of all the skills required to play professional tennis, anticipation may be the most difficult one to teach. Part of it is knowing your opponents' tendencies, part of it is quickness, but the rest is just a gift that Kenin has in spades. 


Concerns

While Kenin’s serve is by no means a weakness, she has one of the most unorthodox motions on tour, tossing the ball high into the air without looking, then at the last second glances up to focus on the ball before making contact.

Kenin tosses the ball high into the air without looking, then glances up to hit it at the last second. (World Team Tennis)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—but we’ve seen many top players, most notably Novak Djokovic, struggle with their service motion after experiencing Grand Slam success. If Kenin experiences any issues or mechanical breakdowns during her career, it’s likely to be related to this.


The Class of 2020 is now on TENNIS.com and Baseline.

Monday, July 27: Sofia Kenin | Monday, July 27: Elena Rybakina | Monday, July 27: Alex de Minaur, Dayana Yastremska, Casper Ruud | Tuesday, July 28: Stefanos Tsitsipas | Tuesday, July 28: Thiago Seyboth Wild | Wednesday, July 29: Amanda Anisimova | Wednesday, July 29: Brandon Nakashima | Thursday, July 30: Coco Gauff | Thursday, July 30: Caty McNally | Thursday, July 30: Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek | Friday, July 31: Felix Auger-Aliassime | Friday, July 31: Carlos Alcaraz | Saturday, August 1: Denis Shapovalov | Saturday, August 1: J.J. Wolf | Sunday, August 2: Bianca Andreescu | Sunday, August 2: Leylah Fernandez  | Sunday, August 2: Marketa Vondrousova, Miomir Kecmanovic