Kenin plays free to rise to top of American tree

  • Dan Imhoff

Amid all the hype teen protege Coco Gauff garners, the talk of whether Madison Keys will step up and buried beneath the narrative of Serena Williams’ pursuit of history, the almost forgotten American Sofia Kenin has pipped them all to the prize.

Ranked 15th, the Russian-born 21-year-old – who boasts wins over each of the aforementioned in the past 12 months – had slipped under the radar through the first week of this Australian Open.

On Saturday night, under the roof in Rod Laver Arena, she felled two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza to became the youngest American woman to win a Grand Slam since Venus Williams at Wimbledon 20 years ago.

MORE: Major breakthrough: Kenin masters Muguruza for title

Two days after breaking Australian hearts under sweltering conditions with her upset of world No.1 Ashleigh Barty, Kenin joined a growing list of first-time major champions in a ruthless showing, free of all fear.

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As the match tightened, Kenin simply rose to the occasion

This was a 21-year-old, whose impatient demands of perfection between points belied her relentless determination to stay alive in rallies she seemingly had no right to turn around.

There were the brash ball slams into the court – more often when she’d held serve rather than conceded it – then came the thigh slaps, the double fist-pumps and wild gesticulating towards her support crew, a glimpse into this ferociously competitive American.

She doesn’t remember the last time she held self-doubts.

“Not really. I feel like 2019 I started off great with first WTA title for me in Hobart. After that things just took off,” Kenin said.

“I had a great run in Paris. Played my idol, Serena. Lost to Ash there. Got the revenge here.

“So, yeah, I mean, everything's just happening so fast for me. I'm just still on cloud nine right now.

“I did it with all the belief that I've had, all the efforts that I've done to get to where I am right now.”

Kenin’s backstory is not one unfamiliar in the United States – the daughter of Russian immigrants who gave up everything to give their children a better future.

Her father and coach, Alexander, spent long nights driving cars for a living by night in New York City, while learning English by day.

There was a nod to her heritage upon entering the packed post-match media conference, where she charged a glass of champagne to her father and her manager before a cheers to the press in Russian: “Na zdorovye.”

One of her biggest fans, however, did not see a point of her famous victory and was not on hand to join the celebrations.

Kenin’s mother Svetlana can’t bear to watch her matches, and was back home Stateside with her grandmother and sister.

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Kenin's composure led to her holding the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy

“I called her right after the match just to tell her that everything's fine, I won, she can just relax now,” Kenin said.

“She's been really stressed at home, very superstitious. Yeah, she's just really happy.

“I told her I'm not going to be able to talk to you for hours, but at least you know that I won.

“I'm coming home, you can give me the biggest hug of your life … They don't watch. My mum cannot watch me.

“Even she knows the results that I won, she still won't watch.”

No longer the forgotten American, Kenin’s reward for her breakthrough victory is a top-10 debut.

She will climb to world No.7, displacing her great rival Serena Williams as the top-ranked woman from the US.

“It hasn't sunk in yet. Everything is just still a blur for me,” she said. 

“I just can't believe what happened … I feel like I'm doing some great things for American tennis. It's such an honour.

“I've watched Serena. I've been following her, all the slams she's been winning. It's a special feeling just to be ahead of her. I'm just super excited. I can't wait to compete, be on the same team with her in Fed Cup.”