This week, we're highlighting our top five WTA players of the year. On Monday, December 7, we'll turn our focus to the ATP. Click here to read each selection.
Notable 2020 Stats
Titles: Australian Open, Lyon
Finals: Roland Garros
Win-loss record: 24-9
Key wins: Ashleigh Barty, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza
In 2019, Sofia Kenin made tremendous headway on the WTA Tour to emerge as a player to watch in the new decade. It was a season that saw the American pick up her first three titles, stun Serena Williams at Roland Garros and knock out successive world No. 1s in Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka at Toronto and Cincinnati. Finishing at No. 14, Kenin was deservedly named the WTA’s 2019 Most Improved Player of the Year.
Twelve months later, the 2020 year-end rankings highlight how Kenin’s advancements were just getting started. The number beside her name, 4, is layered in complexity. One measure implemented by each tour during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic was adopting a “Best of 2019 or 2020” rankings model in March. That enabled Barty, who didn’t play a single tournament after February 28, to keep hold of the top position. Simona Halep was consistently great, winning three titles to go 23-3—though like Barty, retained champion points from a 2019 Grand Slam event (Wimbledon). Osaka shone brightest in New York City by winning all 11 matches she played at Flushing Meadows.
Yet, in a season with less opportunities to make a significant impact, it was Kenin who accumulated more than 1,000 points than any other competitor. By winning her first major at the Australian Open, reaching the final at Roland Garros and adding a second WTA title, Kenin—in our eyes—has rightfully graduated from most improved to player of the year.
Her journey to earning that distinction so quickly may have been a surprising prospect at the start of 2020, after reviewing follow-up campaigns for the WTA's past most improved recipients. But a pair of viral videos with Kenin front and center as a child, which caught fire during her Melbourne Park run, would suggest this has been written in the stars all along.
When Kim Clijsters gave her a private tour behind the scenes at the Miami Open, the then-six-year-old acted like she belonged. Sat in the main interview room, Kenin confidently fielded a question about her preference of winning Wimbledon or the US Open (she picked the former). A year later at another event, Kenin boldly responded to Murphy Jensen that she could return Andy Roddick’s serve “If I split [step], turn around and hit my forehand with a short swing.”
The ingredients have always been inside Kenin, who demonstrated the capabilities, composure, and confidence required to beat the best in the world during her breakout season. Being competitive is one thing; knowing how to compete is another—an indispensable trait Kenin showed us in spades at the 2020 Australian Open.
Despite scoring the most hard-court wins on the WTA in 2019, Kenin wasn’t exactly a darkhorse media darling coming into the Australian Open. In part, the lack of buzz was attributed to an emphatic 6-3, 6-1 defeat to Danielle Collins just before the major, at Adelaide. Kenin quietly went back to business, putting that fresh drubbing in the rearview mirror.
During her third-round clash, former quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai had the chance to strike first with a pair of set points. Kenin saved them both, the second with a winner that would foreshadow a recurring theme. In the round of 16, a 15-year-old also repping the red, white and blue awaited, with all eyes on her. Kenin dropped her first set of the tournament in a tiebreaker to Coco Gauff, though was hardly discouraged. She elevated her first serve percentage to ignite a complete shift in momentum, holding the rest of the way to sink the growing fan favorite with a third-set bagel.
“She has a lot of hype. She has a big name. Obviously she's playing well,” Kenin said afterwards. “Yeah, I just tried not to let that get the better of me, just try to take it like any other match, focus on myself, focus on my game, grind it out basically.”
In a matchup of first-time major quarterfinalists, Kenin ended the dream run of Ons Jabeur. When she walked onto Rod Laver Arena for her semifinal, Kenin had two opponents to overcome: top seed Barty, and an Australian crowd eager to see a home-grown champion. On a blistering day, the No. 14 seed clawed out of a 4-6 hole in a first-set tiebreak to save two set points, then saved two more in the second set when Barty served to force a decider at 5-4, 40-15, ultimately winning the final three games.
Qualities like hitting spots on serve when pressured, withstanding power in grueling rallies and pulling the trigger in courageous moments (can you say backhand dropshot?) propelled Kenin to the biggest match of her life—where she shared how her ingredients can come together in a perfect recipe. Having squared her final clash with Garbine Muguruza to a set apiece, Kenin soon found herself staring down triple break point in the fifth game of a winner-take-all set.
Her inner child smacked a ball in frustration, before her inner champion smacked five remarkable winners—two backhands down the line, a forehand down the line, an ace out wide, a forehand pass—to stay in front. When all was said and done, Kenin saved 10 of 12 break points, while breaking the Spaniard five times from six chances to become the youngest Australian Open champion since 2008, when her idol Maria Sharapova triumphed.
“I love the big stages,” she said afterwards.” My dream has officially [come] true. I cannot even describe this feeling. If you have a dream, go for it, and it's going to come true.”
As several first-time major winners have learned, making the adjustment to life after Grand Slam glory can be a challenging transition. Following a victorious debut as the new U.S. No. 1 at the Billie Jean Cup Finals qualifier in Everett, Wash., Kenin lost her second singles match to Jelena Ostapenko. She reunited for a cool full-circle moment with Clijsters in Dubai, but was tripped up in her first hurdle there and in Doha.
Unaware of what was to come, Kenin honored her commitment in Lyon, an International-level indoor hard event. There, the Pembroke Pines, Fla. resident once again showcased her capacity to put recent memory to bed. In the second round, she erased a match point to survive against world No. 174 Jacqueline Cristian; it would the first of four consecutive three-set wins, culminating in a title. With another trophy added to her name, Kenin flew to Indian Wells eager to see where her renewed momentum would take her, only to find out an eventual five-month shutdown was just getting underway.
“I’ve had a lot of matches where I was down match point and managed to win or win the tournament. I really had to put myself in a state of mind to believe in myself and not give up,” she told TENNIS.com at the BNP Paribas Open after arriving to the canceled tournament. “Coming off the Australian Open, there was a lot of expectations and people looking at me, with all different kinds of pressure. I managed to deal with it and finish off strong.
“I was really looking forward to coming here, playing in front of my fans. Of course after Australia, I was really excited to see them. I just want everything to be fine, nothing to do with my tennis. It’s really unfortunate what’s happening.”
Kenin’s tour resumption arguably provided her toughest test of mental fortitude. She lost her first match back to Alize Cornet at ‘Cincinnati in New York’ and was outclassed by Elise Mertens in the fourth round at the US Open. But what came next was about as hair-raising as the five-point stretch Kenin delivered against Muguruza.
In Rome, Kenin drew her New York doubles partner, Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian flew to the Premier 5 tournament immediately after playing 12 singles and four doubles matches over a three-week stretch. The US Open finalist would have been forgiven had she appeared absent or depleted, except it was Kenin who looked lackluster and lost when making the jump to red clay. The jaw-dropping scoreline: Azarenka d. Kenin, 6-0, 6-0.
Where would Kenin go from there? Back to practice. Back to fundamentals. Back to moving forward and not dwelling on an outcome that can’t be changed. With a week of training under her belt in Paris, Kenin retreated to doing what she does best: finding ways to win by outcompeting the opposition. In her road to the final, the 22-year-old prevailed in deciders on four occasions, twice rallying from a set down.
Kenin’s last win of the year was her strongest since she walked off Rod Laver Arena, a 6-4, 7-5 semifinal victory over two-time Wimbledon titlist Petra Kvitova. Though Iga Swiatek would complete a sensational fortnight to join the American in the major winner’s club, Kenin had plenty of reason to hold her head high in Paris. She had never been beyond the round of 16 at any clay-court event on tour before, and after being served a double bagel, was as far under the radar as any incoming Grand Slam champion could be.
If anything, Kenin once again showed if counted out, she’ll fight for every point just to prove she’s right.