Final reflections: Outsider Kenin converts special talent

  • David Cox

Even as a prodigiously talented child, Sofia Kenin always felt like something of an outsider. As a young girl with Grand Slam winning ambitions who got to hit with superstars like Anna Kournikova at the age of just seven, Kenin still had plenty of detractors who suggested she should pursue a different dream.

“People overlooked me,” Kenin told reporters after winning her first Grand Slam title on Saturday at the age of 21. 

“I wasn’t the tallest kid when I was little. People said, ‘what are you talking about? She’s so small. What are you doing? This is a joke’. We didn’t have the best things said by me, but my dad’s believed in me, didn’t listen to that.”

It has been Kenin’s father and coach Alex – a Russian who emigrated to New York in 1987 and drove taxis by night while studying English by day – who has always been integral to her rise. A self-taught coach who his daughter proudly describes as ‘crazy smart’, he always had complete belief in his daughter’s ability to reach the very top of the game.

“He could have easily said OK, and I could have done something else,” said Kenin. 

“Gone to college, had the other life. But instead I get to experience this, get to play in front of the world.”

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Alex Kenin and daughter Sofia on the banks of the Yarra River on Sunday

Kenin’s journey to the top of the tennis world has always been fuelled by a burning desire to succeed, one which was encapsulated by her performance against Garbine Muguruza in Saturday’s final.

Just like when she was growing up, Kenin had her doubters. Muguruza – a two-time Slam champion – was heavy favourite going into the match as the taller, more experienced and more powerful player. But faced with an opponent who hustled, harried and fought for every point as if her life depended upon it, the Spaniard ran out of ideas and ultimately disintegrated, double faulting on match point.

“Winning is everything to me,” said Kenin, who also sought to clarify that she’s ‘not as crazy as on the court’.

“The fight in me, I feel like that’s something you can’t teach. I feel like you’ve got to have that. It got me here, might as well be like that.”

Not all child prodigies go on to fulfil the promise shown at an early age, and tennis history is littered with the stories of those who have fallen astray. But Kenin has converted her talent at every step of the way. A leading junior who reached No.2 in the world and made the 2015 US Open girls' final, she initially had to bide her time in the professional ranks.

Over the past couple of seasons she has watched on as former rivals Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu pipped her to Grand Slam glory. Earlier this month in Brisbane, Osaka remarked presciently that Kenin was one to watch, having been one of the best around during their junior days.

Kenin admits that witnessing their success was a huge source of motivation for herself. 

“Definitely was a motivation,” she said. 

“My dad was telling me that this is great for them, you can really achieve this, they did it at such a young age. He said, ‘Just play, fight for every match and anything is possible’. Women’s tennis is changing, we all can play with each other on any given day, and there can be a lot of damage happening.”

Few will doubt Kenin again. While the celebrations will continue over the coming days, the burning desire to succeed, to improve and push the limits of her talent remains.

“There’s always room for improvement,” she said. 

“Mental toughness, keep improving that. It got me here, got me this beautiful trophy. I guess keep improving everything, so I can keep winning.”