Sofia Kenin has come a long way in one year.

She arrived at Australian Open 2020 ranked 15th and having never been past the fourth round at a major. Thanks to a breathtaking series of performances, she ended the fortnight as the sport’s newest Grand Slam champion at age 21.

Entering the room for her champion’s press conference, she seemed genuinely startled by the large number of media in attendance, taking a giddy sip of the champagne she was offered. “Everything’s just happening so fast for me,” she said. “Hopefully I can just keep going, build on everything that I’ve done these past two weeks.”

Nine months later, while storming through the Roland Garros draw toward her second major final, she no longer hoped for success, but expected it. “They can’t really do much once I’m playing well,” she said of her opponents, and later added: “I feel like I should be getting deep in a (Grand Slam) tournament.”

Kenin speaks differently to other first-time major winners. There have been 11 dating back to 2016 and many, to varying degrees, struggled with expectations, form and circumstances following their breakthrough.

The American had her moments, losing her opening-round matches at four subsequent tournaments, including a startling 6-0 6-0 defeat to Victoria Azarenka in Rome. She admitted: “When I’m high seeded I feel like people are watching me, (there’s) just a bit more pressure from the outside.”

But she kept winning at the majors, advancing to the fourth round of the US Open before her Roland Garros run, becoming one member of a very select group to reach the second week at all three Slams in 2020.

A talent unearthed

Kenin, now ranked fourth, enjoyed a “big boost” with her performance in Australia. In particular, her last two victories.

Her semifinal against world No.1 Ash Barty marked just her third ever appearance on Rod Laver Arena. She had lost four of her previous five matches against the Australian, had 15,000 fans cheering for her opponent, and confronted two set points in each set.

Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik, in Barty’s player box for that match, was surprised by what she saw Kenin produce.

“What had bothered her in the past, didn’t quite so much in that semifinal. Ash often caught her out with her chip backhand but Kenin was pretty well-prepared (for that this time),” Molik told “In those big moments (she was) just super brave. Braver than I’d probably seen her previously.”

That poise under pressure persisted into the final; she recovered from a set down against Garbine Muguruza, producing a flurry of winners from 0-40 in a pivotal fifth game of the final set to break the Spaniard’s spirit.

Casey Dellacqua, who commentated at AO 2020, said Kenin’s tenaciousness was the biggest weapon in her rise. “She’s probably one of the toughest competitors I know,” Dellacqua said.

“When I talk to young junior players, I’m like, go and watch Sofia Kenin, go and watch her play every match. Her attitude is second to none.”

That attitude extends to the practice court. “(In January) I watched her practice loads of times on the back courts of the Adelaide International, with no crowds, no-one watching, but her intensity was the same as the Australian Open final,” Molik revealed.

“Those types of players are few and far between.”

Australian Open return

While defending her Australian Open title this February presents a unique pressure, there is every chance Kenin will continue to flourish.

Molik believes Kenin’s “incredible” ball-striking abilities – knowing exactly where her racquet face is on contact, and always being in the right position to play shots – stand her in good stead. “Her baseline level is great every day, and that’s why I think she’s able to maintain consistency,” Molik observed.

Dellacqua identified her variety – a willingness to throw in looping balls and drop shots, and come to the net – as another trump card. “That type of tennis can really be dangerous in the women’s game,” the former world No.26 said.

Doubles legend Todd Woodbridge says another of Kenin’s strengths is knowing how to win matches when not playing well, which could be the case as she navigates the pressure of defending a major title for the first time.

“That’s going to be a trait that gives her some longevity and most definitely we’ll see her win more big tournaments throughout her career,” Woodbridge said.

“Even if her level was to drop, I don’t think it’s going to drop enormously. I think she’s still going to be around the middle to latter stages of these majors as we move forward.”

Source: Matt Trollope