If you’ve followed Sofia Kenin’s career for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard how her first coach, Rick Macci, described her when she came to his Florida academy as a 5-year-old. “She was the scariest little creature I’d ever seen,” Macci told The New York Times last year.
Macci was referring to Kenin’s uncanny timing with a tennis racquet. Every backhand he fed her, she hit it back perfectly. And she still hits it perfectly 16 years later. Coming into her semifinal at Roland Garros on Thursday, the American had knocked off more than 100 winners from that side in her first five matches.
But Kenin was more than just a ball-striking automaton when she was a kid. She also had a precocious grasp of tennis technique and tactics. At an event in Florida in 2005, a 6-year-old Kenin was asked if she thought she could return Andy Roddick’s 140-m.p.h. serve. After confidently saying “Yes,” she explained how: “If I split step and prepare early and I do a short backswing.” A teaching pro couldn’t have put it any better.
“I understood everything at that age,” Kenin said with a laugh last year, as she watched a tape of that interview.
In her 6-4, 7-5 win over Petra Kvitova in the semis today, Kenin showed that her intuitive grasp of the game is still very much intact. When we label certain players “artists,” we’re usually referring to their flair, their creativity, their ability to do something extra with their shots that no one else can do. Few people would describe Kenin’s game that way, because she never does anything extra, and never adds any more flair than is absolutely necessary. But watching her against Kvitova today, I started thinking that there is an art to her tactical approach. Kenin has a knack for finding the right shot for just about every occasion. With her, there’s no flair for flair’s sake. It’s all in the service of winning.
“I'm a problem solver,” Kenin said today. “You obviously have to expect tough situations. It's a tennis match. You know your opponent wants to win. They want to find your weakness.”
A few examples of Kenin’s problem solving on Thursday:
Kenin mixed up her returns, something many players don’t do. In the third game, she hit a drop-shot return winner on one point; a slice forehand return on the next point; and then a hard drive return. Kvitova didn’t know what to expect by then, and she was broken.
Kenin anticipated well and showed off her court sense. Kvitova has five inches on the 5’7 American, and she hits the ball much harder. Kenin countered that today by reading where the Czech was going to go, sliding into the ball, and putting her retrieval shots in difficult positions for Kvitova. More often than not, Kenin was in the right place to stop a Kvitova attack and turn it onto one of her own.
“She was moving well,” Kvitova said of Kenin. “That was probably the key today.”
Kenin attacked judiciously. Kvitova and Kenin make for an instructive contrast. Kvitova goes for broke from just about anywhere, while Kenin only tries for winners when she’s moving forward, and usually when she’s inside the baseline. While Kvitova did hit more winners than Kenin, the difference was negligible, 28 to 23.
I liked Kenin’s summary of how she played:
“I feel like I returned really well,” Kenin said. “I know she has a big serve. I knew more or less where she likes to serve on tough points.
“I mean, obviously I felt like I could not overpower her. I knew I just needed to adjust my game. I had to control the points, move her, dictate, try not to give her short balls, try to have a good serve. It's really important for me to have good serves today. More first serves in than second. Just be aggressive and take my chances.”
Kenin teetered at times today, but she didn’t let herself topple. She tossed in three double faults, but they didn’t lead to more. She blew her first chance to serve for the match, but not her second. At another, smaller tournament, she might have let a match like this slip; she lost in the first round at her last two non-Slam events. But at the majors this year, she has found a way to maintain her grip on the match. What’s her secret? Kenin may have coined a term for her brand of competitive grit today.
“You really got to first of all love the game,” she said. “You got to love the competition, you got to love to compete. You know, you have to have that feist in you.”
Kenin has feist in abundance. But it wouldn’t mean as much without her smarts and instincts. To see her weave her varied shots into a winning whole is to see an artist—a feisty artist—at work.