The most notable US athletes of 2020: No 5 – Sofia Kenin, out of the shadows

This time last year Sofia Kenin was coming off a season that saw her win three titles at lower-level tournaments, spring a headline-grabbing upset of Serena Williams at the French Open, scale more than 40 places in the world rankings and take home the WTA’s most improved player award.

But as one of eight players aged 22 or younger to finish in the year-end top 25, she’d yet to meaningfully separate herself from the brigade of talent-rich youngsters threatening to kick in the door of women’s tennis. Certainly not when Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu were out here winning majors. Even domestically, Kenin’s emergence was almost entirely dwarfed by the breathless ESPN-driven hype surrounding Coco Gauff’s meteoric rise and Serena’s comeback from childbirth and dogged pursuit of Margaret Court’s record.

No longer. Since then Kenin, who entered 2020 having never reached the quarter-finals at a major, shocked the world by capturing her maiden grand slam at Melbourne Park, cracking the top 10 in the rankings and supplanting Serena as the American No 1. She then went on to consolidate the win in the face of ramped-up hype and expectations by finishing 16-2 at the majors, playing into the fourth round at the US Open and the final at Roland Garros. No player on the women’s tour shone brighter in 2020.

The feisty 22-year-old from Florida, the daughter of Russian immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1987 with $300 between them, does no one thing exceptionally, but almost everything well. She makes up for her modest 5ft 7in frame and lack of any discernibly big weapons with a rock-solid backhand and an educated command of tactics, varying topspin and slice and timely drop shots within the points to alter the rhythm and run her opponents ragged. But what mostly set Kenin apart throughout her charmed season was an intense fighting spirit, relentless competitive drive and uncanny knack for meeting the biggest moments head-on.

No one won more three-set matches than Kenin’s 10 and her nine tie-break set wins was second most on the tour. Never was this taste for the fight more evident than in the Australian Open semi-finals against Ash Barty, the world No 1 playing on home soil. Amid punishing conditions with temperatures pushing 40C (100F) and a packed Rod Laver Arena squarely in her opponent’s corner, Kenin fought off two set points in the first set and another two in the second to win the match in straight sets.

Two days later, Kenin came from behind to see off two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in a gripping three-set final. The decisive sequence came a two-all in the decider when Kenin ripped five straight winners to hold from love-40 down. The shattered Spaniard wouldn’t win another game.

There’s been a wind of change about women’s tennis over the past couple of years as the tour’s young lions have found their footing: Of the past 14 grand slam champions in women’s singles, nine have been first-time winners. Kenin looks right at home alongside the Osakas, Bartys, Andreescus and Haleps of the circuit. But it’s her ability to raise her level and hold her nerve when the points matter most which suggests she’s here to stay.


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