Twice in her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, Sofia Kenin was down 0-40 on serve against two-time Major winner Garbine Muguruza.
The first was in the first set when she was serving at 2-4 and staring at a double break. The second, more critically was, at 2-2 in the third set. If she had given up serve at that point, she would have handed her opponent the first break of the decider. The Spanish former world No 1 was just starting to find her rhythm after dropping the second set and had set up the triple breakpoint.
But the next few points showed exactly why Kenin, the 21-year-old American 14th seed, deserved her first Grand Slam trophy.
- A 13-shot rally, ending with a cracking backhand winner down-the-line.
- An 11-shot rally, ending with another sensational backhand winner down-the-line.
- Another 11 shot rally, ended with a clean forehand winner down the line.
- A wide angled ace, only her second of the match.
- Another-11 shot rally, ending with another forehand winner as she held serve.
This from a first-time Major finalist against a former world No 1 who has beaten Serena Williams and Venus Williams to win her two titles. This against Muguruza who had out-rallied a player like Simona Halep in the semi-final.
In that moment Kenin changed the match around and wrote herself into the record books.
Still reeling from the effects of the previous game, Muguruza was broken after leading 40-15 and she didn’t win another game in the match after that, committing a double fault on championship point.
That aforementioned game was the perfect description of the match, as Kenin won 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in just over two hours.
Muguruza had the chances – 12 break points of which only two were converted – but Kenin, who converted five of her six breakpoints, had the fight of a champion. It is the fighting mentality that prevailed in the end.
Ironically, it would have appeared that the 26-year-old in her fourth Grand Slam final would have the composure, but it was the youngster who had never before gone past the fourth round at a Major who showed her mettle on big points.
The American had been flying under the radar till, perhaps, her win over the teenage sensation Coco Gauff, who had knocked out defending champion Naomi Osaka.
In all fairness, Kenin doesn’t yet have a striking game or a standout stroke and plays a steady, level game. But when it mattered the most, her determination, seize-the-day attitude and fighting spirit were her big weapons against a ball-striker like Muguruza, as it was against the variety of top seed Ashleigh Barty in the semi-final.
That mentality of Kenin could probably have its grounding from the hardships her family faced to get her here, the not-so-unfamiliar story of immigrants.
Born in Russia to parents who moved to the USA with little money to give their family a brighter future, she had often referred to her story as the American Dream. Her father and coach, Alexander, spent the nights driving a taxi in New York City and the days learning English and computers.
While her father said she didn’t have to personally go through a lot, the very fact that her tennis career is founded in the sacrifices of her family makes her driven and hungry at another level.
The fearlessness and confidence is not a new attribute, as her now viral video interview with Tennis Channel as a seven-year-old showed. A tiny Kenin had claimed she knows how to return Andy Roddick’s serve and even dissected the return she would employ.
The story goes that her father knew she could be professional tennis player when she was just five and he worked towards making it true. Of course, it could have gone either way with the pressure of being groomed from such a young age affecting her performance.
But that pressure translated to motivation in her case. “I just want to say that my dream has officially come true, I can’t even describe this feeling. It’s so emotional and I’ve worked so hard and I’m just so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true, so if you have one, go for it,” she said while delivering the winner’s speech.
The emotions were evident, from the sheer disbelief after stunning top Ashleigh Barty in the semi-finals to the tears after the final win. The flipside were the emotions pouring over in between points – which prompted some to comment on her poor behavior – but those are, perhaps, a sign of what she expects from herself.
The slapping of the thigh, the fist pumps, anger at the ball and pointing to her box can be read as tantrums, her play right after suggest it to be a tactic to focus on her game; the vestiges of the energy and intensity she is putting in the game, which enabled her to bounce back after dropping the first set.
The dream is one she had built slowly and shaped up steadily from 2019. In her breakthrough season, the 23-year-old reached a career-high 12, won three WTA titles and the award for the most improved player of the year.
At the French Open, she had beaten Serena Williams in the third round in straight sets, but lost to eventual champion Barty with a bagel in the decider. In Melbourne, she repaid that with interest saving two set points in each set and breaking Australian hearts.
“I know people haven’t really paid attention much to me in the past. I had to establish myself – and I have. Now I’m getting the attention, which I like – not going to lie,” Kenin said after reaching her first Major final.
Now with her first Grand Slam title, the youngest in Australia since Maria Sharapova in 2008, she has ensured the attention of the tennis world and a top 10 debut.
The new American No 1, overtaking Serena Williams, has made the dream a reality.