With the years of Serena Williams’s dominance now in the rearview mirror, women’s tennis is firmly in its unpredictability era.
For over a decade, you could pencil Williams in for at least one or two Grand Slams a year automatically, long before anyone hit a tennis ball. But for the past three years, few sports have been harder to predict than women’s tennis: Four different women have won each of the four major tournaments. The last time that happened was before World War II.
Now, after the first Slam of 2020, this season figures to be just as open. The 21-year-old American Sofia Kenin on Saturday won the Australian Open by beating Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Kenin had never won a Slam before. In fact, she’d never been past the fourth round of a Slam before. But her victory in Melbourne means that eight of the past 12 Slam winners have now been first-timers.
“My dream officially came true,” Kenin said on the court after the match. “I can’t even describe this feeling.”
Kenin, the daughter of Russian immigrants to the U.S. and a full-time resident of Florida, became just the second American woman without the last name Williams to lift a Grand Slam trophy since 2002. The other was Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open.
Listed at 5-foot-7, Kenin lacks the power or dominant serve of some of her more prominent rivals on the women’s tour. But she makes up for it with her movement and steely resolve. In her semifinal against world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, Kenin twice survived a pair of set points to bounce back and win in straight sets.
Then in Saturday’s final, she fought off three break points at 2-2 in the third set and never looked back. She raced away, pumping her fist and pounding her stars-and-stripes-painted racket until her final break of Muguruza.
“These past two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life,” Kenin said.
Neither Kenin nor Muguruza had arrived in Melbourne expecting to stay for the full duration. Muguruza was coming off one of the rockiest periods of her career, which saw her ranking plummet as low as No. 36 in the world. It was her first unseeded appearance at a Slam since 2014. Kenin, meanwhile, had never cracked the top 10.
But by Saturday in Australia, Kenin’s class was no longer a mystery to the wider tennis world. After stunning Barty, she came out swinging against Muguruza, a two-time Slam winner.
Though she took the first set, Muguruza showed some of the wobble that dogged her through the end of last season. From 4-2 up with three break points, she let Kenin tie things up with a pair of double faults in the eighth game, and had to scrape over the line to win 6-4.
But Kenin wasn’t finished. Unshaken by her first appearance in a Grand Slam final, she gathered herself to produce some incredibly tidy tennis and frustrated Muguruza. She took the second set 6-2 with only four unforced errors along the way.
By the third set, she was in her groove. As Muguruza’s game deteriorated, Kenin committed only four more unforced errors.
“Every point was such a battle,” Kenin said. “It was very, very physical.”
Kenin’s rise has largely gone under the radar. American tennis narratives are still dominated by Williams’s hunt for Slam number 24. And Kenin rarely features in the names mentioned as a possible successor. For years, the attention focused on Stephens, now 26, but she has advanced past the quarterfinals only once in a Grand Slam tournament since her U.S. Open triumph in 2017. More recently, there has been the human ball of excitement that is 15-year-old Coco Gauff.
But Kenin is unmatched right now for steady progress. She will climb to No. 7 in the world after her victory in Melbourne, establishing her as the highest-ranked American in women’s tennis. She’s also the youngest American to make her top 10 debut since 1999, according to the Women’s Tennis Association.
The last one, inevitably, was Serena Williams.