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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