In Paris, semifinalist Sofia Kenin put a “disaster” in Rome behind her

In Paris, semifinalist Sofia Kenin put a “disaster” in Rome behind her

The Australian Open champion has left her 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka in the distant past.

“It was kind of a disaster.”

That’s how Sofia Kenin described her 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka in Rome, just before Roland Garros.

There are disasters in tennis, and then there are double-bagel disasters. They carry a special, embarrassing sting. Fans and future opponents will forget a 6-0, 6-1 loss, but love-and-love stays in people’s minds. Sometimes, a loss like that leads to coaches being fired and careers being reassessed.

None of that happened to Kenin, of course. She can’t really fire her coach, who is also her father, Alex. And there was no reason to reassess her career so soon after she won her first Grand Slam, at the Australian Open. Instead, Kenin has put her disaster behind her in the best way possible: With her first trip to the semis at Roland Garros, which she secured with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 win over fellow Floridian Danielle Collins on Wednesday.

Few people predicted that Kenin would bounce back so quickly. She had also struggled during the brief summer hard-court season in the U.S., and it seemed like the pandemic lockdowns had put a halt to her early-season momentum. In retrospect, though, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this single-minded athlete would stabilize herself so quickly. Whether she’s moving from one point to the next, or one tournament to the next, Kenin doesn’t waste any time. She doesn’t seem to brood on any failure, or sabotage herself with negative thoughts. The best medicine for Kenin was to start hitting balls again.

“We came to Paris and I had a week or so to practice, to get used to the clay,” she said. “I just tried to not think about that match. That match I’m never gonna watch.”

Kenin is all-business on the court, but she couldn't help but smile as she walked off it as a Roland Garros semifinalist for the first time. (Getty Images)

Kenin hasn’t been flawless. Four of her five wins at Roland Garros have come in three sets, and she joked today about not wanting to win in two sets anymore. But going three does have its advantages. By now, Kenin expects her matches to have ebbs and flows; after losing the second set to Collins today, she immediately broke serve at love to start the third.

“I feel like I'm doing a really good job with keeping my ground and staying focused, starting off strong in the third set, because obviously I don't want to go too down,” Kenin said. “I want to start off with the lead, and luckily I'm getting a good lead in the third set.”

Throughout the match, Kenin also showed what makes her such a quietly difficult and dangerous opponent. She doesn’t have a reputation for artistry, or even for variety, the way someone like Ons Jabeur does, and she’s isn’t a highlight-reel shot-maker. But Kenin makes her variety work for her by weaving together the different elements of her game into a logical whole.

From the start on Wednesday, Kenin rarely let Collins hit the same type of ball twice in a row. Kenin gave her moon balls that she had to reach up for. She threw in drop shots that she had to run forward to get. She sliced her two-handed backhand on one shot, and drove it on the next. While Kenin doesn’t hit as big as Collins, she finished with 16 more winners, 38 to 22.

“I just knew her game,” Kenin said. “I knew what I needed to do.”

Nothing extra, nothing fancy, no bells or whistles—not even any extra celebrations. After she won today, Kenin walked to the net, tapped racquets, and gave the crowd the very briefest of waves. She didn’t look like she wanted to acknowledge that she had beaten another American.

Kenin was asked today to sum up tennis in one word. Without hesitation, she said, “Winning, definitely. I love winning more than anything, so, yeah, winning.”

Losing? 6-0, 6-0? Forget about it. If it’s not a victory for Kenin, she doesn’t want to think about it. And that’s why she’s winning again.