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“I’m hungry to get back” says Kenin after Gauff upset at Wimbledon

  • Matt Trollope

After years of struggles, is Sofia Kenin finally rediscovering the level that saw her attain incredible heights?

The American hinted this could be so, after her impressive upset of Coco Gauff on Day 1 of Wimbledon.

Kenin won the Australian Open in 2020 – beating Gauff along the way – and later that year advanced to the Roland Garros final. These performances pushed her inside the world’s top five and earned her WTA Player of the Year honours.

Yet a combination of factors contributed to an alarming slide; she dropped as low as world No.426 in July 2022.

She is currently ranked 128th, and needed to begin her Wimbledon campaign in the qualifying draw. But she won three rounds at Roehampton, and carried that momentum onto No.1 Court against Gauff, winning 6-4 4-6 6-2.

It is the first time she has won four consecutive matches, at any level, in almost three years.

And she is projected to return to the world’s top 100.

“It's never the ideal position for me because I know where I was and where I should be,” Kenin said of starting in the qualifying rounds.

READ MORE: The return of Caroline Wozniacki

“(But) if I would look at that coming into quallies, I definitely would not be sitting here. I had to put that aside. I know everyone is really tough in quallies. Everyone who is there is playing well and fighting for a spot in the main draw. I just had to push through, battle (it) out. 

“Once I passed the quallies, now I'm just eager and hungry to get back.”

Sofia Kenin (L) shakes hands with Coco Gauff after winning their first-round match at Wimbledon 2023. [Getty Images]

Kenin maintained her peak ranking of world No.4 into April in 2021, but problematic signs were already showing.

She experienced a stressful Australian Open title defence, repeatedly referencing her battle with nerves during media appearances and promptly exiting in the second round.

After a surprising first-round loss to unranked wildcard Olivia Gadecki in her next event, she was diagnosed with appendicitis and sidelined for more than a month.

She managed to win her first round at Wimbledon 2021 – until Monday, this was the last time she had won a Grand Slam main-draw match – but did not play for the rest of the year as she dealt with a foot injury and a bout of COVID.

After an encouraging start to 2022 with a quarterfinal in Adelaide, Kenin did not win another match until August, losing nine in a row as she battled more injuries. Her ranking plummeted outside the top 400.

Throughout these years, changes in her personnel and management contributed to off-court instability.

Thankfully, she steadied the ship with some solid performances on the lower-tier circuit in late 2022. And she commenced 2023 feeling more positive about her game, and career.

“I feel like this year has been not necessarily lows, but I feel like it's a comeback year for me,” Kenin said. “I feel like I started off the year well, I was playing well. I had a good feeling that this year would be a good year for me.”

Sofia Kenin kisses the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after winning the Australian Open 2020 final over Garbine Muguruza.

Indeed, after a semifinal run in Hobart, Kenin also showed promising signs at a higher level, with third-round finishes at WTA 1000 events in Miami and Rome. She has won 16 matches so far, and more than halved her ranking since January.

But she is still prone to mystifying results.

After beating red-hot Aryna Sabalenka in a brilliant second-round performance in Rome – her first top-10 win since upsetting Ash Barty in the AO 2020 semifinals – Kenin lost her next three matches. One was a straight-sets loss to 283rd-ranked Frenchwoman Margaux Rouvroy in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying.

READ MORE: WTA 'Big Three' now its top three

Just a few weeks later, she was back to beating another top-10 player, in Gauff, on one of the biggest stages in the sport.

What is clear is she prefers the role of underdog. After beating both Sabalenka and Gauff, Kenin acknowledged she was playing with less expectation than her opponents. 

But at Wimbledon, she is also playing with a point to prove. 

Gauff, who had twice previously reached the second week in London, said before the tournament she did not remember much from their AO 2020 fourth-round meeting. 

“Honestly, her game is pretty similar (to then). I think I just got better,” Gauff said.

Given Gauff’s recent struggles on her forehand wing, the comment raised some eyebrows. And Kenin – a savvy match-player – exploited this.

“I guess of course (I tried to) pick on her forehand a little bit more. Obviously I wasn't playing every ball to her forehand. I had to be aggressive, serve well, return well. When you're playing Coco, you have to be at your best,” Kenin explained.

“(When people don’t consider me the favourite) it gives me a boost to try to prove them wrong. Of course, when I was higher ranked and everything, people looked at me like I should win. I knew she'd be a bit more, like, nervous because more pressure's on her than me.

“I just tried to use everything I could (in) this match to my advantage.”

Having now assumed Gauff’s seeded position in the draw, Kenin could now be considered the favourite when she lines up against 73rd-ranked Wang Xinyu, given her form and credentials, and Wang’s comparative lack of experience.

It will be fascinating to see how she manages this shift in the dynamic as she continues her journey back toward the top of the sport.