Sofia Kenin adjusts to defending champion role at Australian Open

Sofia Kenin
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After spending 19 hours a day in a Melbourne hotel room for two weeks, defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin ventured into the city.

She walked around for two hours a day for fresh air last week, mask-less like many others given the nonexistent community virus spread. Not one person approached her.

“I feel like if everyone was coming up to me, I’d kind of panic a little bit,” she said. “I’m sure, at least I’m hoping, if I do well in the Australian Open, then people would come to me. We’re staying at the Crown Towers, if anyone wants to come see me.”

Kenin began her title defense with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Australian wild card Maddison Inglis on Tuesday, rallying after being down an early break of serve.

“I obviously am tight,” said Kenin, who cried regularly before matches last year and said there were “some tears” on her return to Rod Laver Arena. “I wasn’t there 100% mentally. But a win is a win, and I’ll take it.”

She next gets Estonian Kaia Kanepi, unseeded but with a reputation for big-stage upsets.

Other notable winners Tuesday: top-ranked Ash Barty of Australia (6-0, 6-0 in 44 minutes, losing just 10 points), 16-year-old Coco Gauff (who gets fifth seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in round two) and 61st-ranked American Jessica Pegula, who took out two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-4.

Rafael Nadal, who has been slowed by a back muscle injury, rolled 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 over Slovenian Laslo Đere.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men

Kenin hopes for another seven-match run like last year, when she went past the fourth round of a major for the first time and became more recognizable to the person who tunes into tennis four times per year.

Kenin, a 22-year-old born in Moscow and raised in Florida, then reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open and the final of the French Open. She was named WTA Player of the Year.

Even if locals aren’t noticing her, Kenin feels the weight of defending a major title for the first time. In interviews last week, she said she expected “a rollercoaster” first day or two. She predicted a “really, really hectic” time and said she was “obviously very nervous” going into her return to Rod Laver Arena.

“After who wins a Grand Slam, of course people are going to be looking at them,” she said.

Kenin, seeded fourth, takes comfort in knowing she backed up her breakout with runs in New York and Paris. And that, with the adjusted rankings system, she can’t lose any points in Melbourne.

She was devastated, however, on one of those two-hour tours around Melbourne last week. She found that the Vietnamese restaurant she ate lunch at every day last year since closed.

“I’m obviously superstitious,” she said. “I was planning to go there for Australian Open [again].”

Kenin has to adjust, just like on court, where she feels targeted as the defending champ.

“Mentally, I got to handle my emotions and understand whoever I’m going to play, they’re obviously going to play with no pressure,” she said. “They’re probably going to play better against me, so I have to somehow try to handle my nerves and try to stick to my game plan.”

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U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game