MELBOURNE, Australia — Sofia Kenin knew this would be a tough test at the Australian Open, a potentially early end to her first attempt to defend a Grand Slam title.
Upon realizing she probably would be playing big-hitting veteran Kaia Kanepi in the second round, Kenin acknowledged, she “maybe kind of broke down a little bit.”
Kenin was right to be worried. And, with Kanepi at her best, this one was over quickly. Delivering 10 aces, Kanepi powered her way past the No. 4-seeded Kenin, overwhelming the 2020 champion 6-3, 6-2 in just 64 minutes on Thursday.
“I obviously felt like I’m not there 100% — physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off, obviously. It’s not good,” Kenin said at her news conference, where she wiped away tears.
“I mean, I just — I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure,” she said.
There’s very little that’s subtle about Kanepi’s game, and there wasn’t much nuance in the way she described her approach to this match: “I served really well today. I think this helped a lot. My game plan was to play aggressive, as I normally do.”
That pretty much sums it up.
Later Thursday, No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine ended the Australian Open for another young American — 16-year-old Coco Gauff — 6-4, 6-3. Rafael Nadal swept American Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.
Play continues Friday morning (Thursday night in the U.S.) with Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic (vs. the only seeded American man, Taylor Fritz) to start the third round.
Kanepi said her winning performance wasn’t merely a case of taking advantage of Kenin’s nerves because “I was nervous, too . . . playing the defending champion, that was the thought.”
Kanepi, 35, had beaten Kenin, 22, in their only previous matchup, part of why this was not a contest the American was looking forward to. Plus, Kanepi has been successful against some of the best on the biggest stages, with seven victories over Top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments, including against then-No. 1 Simona Halep at the 2018 U.S. Open.
And then there was recent form.
Kenin walked off the court crying after a 6-2, 6-2 loss last week in a tuneup event at the site of the Australian Open and explained afterward that her left leg was sore. Kanepi, meanwhile, put an end to No. 7-ranked Aryna Sabalenka’s 15-match winning streak last week and had won 16 of her past 17 outings.
With serves topping 110 mph, Kanepi saved all seven break points she faced. And she wound up with a 22-10 edge in winners.
“I couldn’t find my rhythm,” Kenin said. “I was obviously way too nervous.”
Her departure meant three of the top nine seeded women already were gone before midway through Day 4 at a Grand Slam tournament where routines have been disrupted by the pandemic, joining No. 8 Bianca Andreescu (the 2019 U.S. Open champion) and No. 9 Petra Kvitova (a two-time Wimbledon winner) on the sidelines.
Serena Williams remains the last woman to successfully defend a Grand Slam title — at Wimbledon in 2016.
Top-ranked Ash Barty did manage to avoid a surprise Thursday, but she blew a big lead in the second set and survived a shaky tiebreaker to get past Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 7-6 (7).
Barty is trying to become the first Australian to win the women’s title at Melbourne since Chris O’Neil in 1978.
“It’s a different challenge every single day,” Barty said. “It’s trying to be the best I can every single day, whatever that level is.”
Barty lost only 10 points in the opening round, and her match against Gavrilova was equally lopsided until the wobbly finish. She led 5-2 in the second set but was broken twice serving for the victory.
In the tiebreaker Barty lost several ugly points. Gavrilova, a wild card, failed to convert two set points and committed unforced errors to end the final three rallies.
The two friends then shared a hug at the net.
“When you play another Aussie, rankings go out the window, experience goes out the window,” Barty said. “Typically you know each other so well. It’s always going to be a tricky match.”
Other winners included former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova and American Shelby Rogers.
Fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas was pushed all the way by No. 267-ranked Australian wild-card entry Thanasi Kokkinakis in a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win that delayed the night program on Rod Laver Arena.
Also advancing were No. 9 Matteo Berrettini and American Mackenzie McDonald, who beat 22nd-seeded Borna Coric 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
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