As a child, Sofia Kenin got to hang out with some of tennis’ greats. She could be on the way to becoming one herself. Kenin won her first grand slam title at the Australian Open on Saturday, rallying to beat a resurgent Garbine Muguruza 4-6 6-2 6-2 as Melbourne’s fickle weather resurfaced. At 21, Kenin became the youngest women’s champion at the Australian Open since her idol, Maria Sharapova, in 2008. “I’m so proud of myself, my dad, my team, everyone that has been around me,” said Kenin. “We’ve worked all hard. We’ve been through tough times. We did it. We fought. I’m just like on cloud nine.”She converted five of six break points while saving 10 of 12 herself, often with gutsy winners. Escaping from 0-40 at 2-2 in the decider proved to be the turning point. “I think she found very, very good shots during the match,” said Muguruza, who was unseeded after being a former world No. 1. “Especially in the important moments, I think she came out with winners and just hitting the ball very good.”
An increasingly erratic Muguruza was undone by eight double faults, three in the final game including one long on match point. Kenin put her hand to her face in disbelief in the moment of victory before exchanging a hug with Muguruza. Soon it was off to dad Alex in her box for a handshake. Mom Svetlana stayed at home, too nervous to watch the match.
Alex said earlier in the tournament, after she downed teen sensation Coco Gauff, that her daughter should be receiving more attention. That doesn’t figure to be an issue any longer.She will move inside the top 10 from 15th in the rankings and replace Serena Williams as the new US No. 1. Kenin — who ended home hopes by upsetting world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals — said she’d like to move to New York one day, partly due to its fancy shops. She’ll have more money to spend after pocketing $4 million AUD ($2 million). Like Sharapova, Kenin was born in Russia before settling in Florida at a young age via New York. Her dad drove a taxi and studied computers, despite not having a good grasp of English. They had little money. At times when driving the taxi, Alex said he couldn’t understand where he was supposed to go. “I don’t think she experienced all the sacrifices we had to go through but she knows about them and when we just got to the country, that was like very, very, very tough,” said Alex.Kenin started to play when she was around three and a half years old, hitting balls with her dad in their driveway in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Prominent tennis coach Rick Macci helped hone her game and it wasn’t long before a six-year-old Kenin was being given a tour of the Miami Open by grand slam winner Kim Clijsters. As a child, she also had her picture taken with Anna Kournikova and enjoyed watching Andy Roddick.
Kenin isn’t the tallest at 5-foot-7 but generates ample power by straddling the baseline and using her opponents’ pace. Furthermore, she matches Sharapova’s fierce competitiveness. In the final two sets, Kenin delivered 19 winners with only eight unforced errors, also playing incredible defense when required. “She proved she can compete at any level,” said Alex. “Those people who didn’t believe in her, they had very valid reasons not to, because she’s always been the smallest one, but I guess thank God I saw something they didn’t because I know her better.”Muguruza doesn’t have the most power on the tour but there is ample venom that is, when on her game, relentless. Kenin was on the back foot for the opener, though didn’t appear to be overawed in her first grand slam final. Melbourne’s weather is living up to the script. After two days of scorching temperatures that topped 40 degrees Celsius, rain followed and the temperature dropped considerably by Saturday evening. Thankfully for all parties, the bush smoke that hit Melbourne during qualifying week after the bush fires in the country has not been an issue during the tournament proper.
Early lead for Muguruza
Kenin dropped serve at 1-1 with a forehand wide and Muguruza built a 4-2 advantage helped by winning a 23-shot rally that ended with a volley winner. Muguruza, who came into the Australian Open ranked 32nd, was broken for 4-4 after hitting back-to-back double faults for the second time in the contest — a precursor to more serving woes in the third. Yet Muguruza didn’t allow that blip to turn into an extended slide, breaking back for 5-4. She created nine break points in the first, which was sealed with a loud Muguruza roar. Losing the first set appeared to be trouble for Kenin, since one had to go back to 2013 for the last time a women’s player rallied to win the final after dropping the opener — Victoria Azarenka defeating Li Na. Kenin is more accustomed to roaring than Muguruza and three times she let out loud yells of “come on” including when earning a break point at 2-1. A Muguruza error led to the break. When she held for 4-1, Kenin purposefully walked to her chair in keeping with her quick strides between points. Her second-set numbers were glittering — eight winners and only four unforced errors.
Just like in their lone meeting in Beijing last year, won by Kenin, the encounter went to a third. The trainer visited Muguruza as she felt the effects of a long fortnight but there was no medical timeout. Kenin saved all three of the break points at 2-2 by moving Muguruza around and registering three winners. It was bold tennis under extreme pressure. “That’s the game I feel like changed things,” said Kenin. “I had to play some (of my) best tennis. I did. After that, I was on fire. I was ready to take the beautiful trophy.”Muguruza was having to work so hard for points, as evidenced by another 23-shot rally when Kenin’s defensive lobs kept the point going. Muguruza subsequently dropped serve from 40-15 — missing a backhand near the net at deuce after Kenin’s return skimmed the tape and then double faulting on break point — and Kenin didn’t look back. This was still an encouraging tournament for Muguruza, who’d beaten Serena and Venus Williams in her two other major finals. Unseeded for the first time at a grand slam since 2014 after a troubling 2019, the 26-year-old defeated three top-10 seeds after being reunited with coach and Hall of Famer Conchita Martinez. Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season appears to have been a life — and career — altering moment. “I think I’m in a good process,” she said. “I think I felt my game much better than before.”But Muguruza wasn’t able to hit the heights Saturday thanks to an American whose determination matches her impressive game.