Garbine Muguruza

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Sofia Kenin wins Australian Open; youngest American women’s Grand Slam champ since Serena Williams

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Sofia Kenin‘s tennis life has so far been one of labels. From pre-teen prodigy, hitting with Anna Kournikova and getting her picture taken playing with Kim Clijsters‘ hair. To opponent, the woman who beat Serena Williams in last year’s French Open third round.

Now, a new title: Australian Open champion. And perhaps now, beyond labels, more deserved name recognition.

Kenin, at best the U.S.’ fifth most well-known active tennis player, became the youngest U.S. woman to win a Grand Slam since Williams in 2002. The 21-year-old beat Spain’s two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the Melbourne final on Saturday.

Kenin showcased her trademark ferocity, one that belies her 5-foot-7 frame and that she attributes to her birth nation of Russia. The crucial time was at 2-all in the final set. Kenin, born in Moscow and raised in Florida by Russian parents, rallied from love-40 down on her serve and won the last four games.

“I knew I needed to come up with the best shot, five best shots of my life,” she said. “It got me to win a Grand Slam.”

And to supplant Williams as the highest-ranked U.S. woman in the world (No. 7 overall). She’s the youngest woman to take that label since Williams was year-end No. 1 in 2002.

“Obviously,” Kenin said, “things are going to change for me.”

Kenin had never before gone past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. But she hasn’t doubted herself in more than a year. She backed up that win over Williams in Paris by beating top-ranked Ash Barty of Australia last summer and again in the semifinals in Melbourne with the crowd against her.

Younger Americans had bigger Grand Slam breakthrough in 2019 — Coco Gauff, 15, and Amanda Anisimova, 18 — but it was Kenin who was the WTA’s Most Improved Player last season. She made sure to point out that award in her champion’s press conference Saturday, with what appeared to be a half-full glass of champagne on the table in front of her.

“I knew I needed to establish myself to get to where I am,” said Kenin, who jumped from No. 52 at the end of 2018 to No. 14 at the end of 2019. “All the confidence has come with all the matches that I’ve had, the success I’ve had in 2019.”

Kenin said she overcame nerves to win each of her seven matches the last two weeks, including coming from a set down to oust Gauff in the round of 16.

“[Doubles parter] Bethanie [Mattek-Sands] tweeted I’ve been crying before every match,” said Kenin, who moved to No. 1 in U.S. Olympic qualifying and is all but assured one of four singles spots in Tokyo (and probably a doubles spot with Mattek-Sands, potentially leaving one doubles spot to be doled out between Gauff and Venus Williams after the French Open).

Kenin has repeated the phrase “American dream” this past week. Her Russian parents came to New York City in 1987 with $286, according to New York Times and ESPN profiles of Kenin after she uspet Williams in Paris. They went back to Russia for Kenin’s birth, then back to the States.

Kenin began playing tennis at 5 and honed her game in Florida. She became a U.S. age-group No. 1 in the 12, 14, 16 and 18 divisions. Sonyakenin.us was up and running when she was 9 (her nickname is Sonya). She made a junior Grand Slam final and reached No. 2 in the junior world rankings.

But unlike Gauff and Anisimova (and both Williams sisters), Kenin didn’t start making her mark in majors until she turned 20. Kenin considered delaying her pro career in 2017. Had she lost in the first round of the U.S. Open that year for a third straight time, she would have considered enrolling at the University of Miami, according to the Washington Post.

Instead, she beat two Americans before losing to Maria Sharapova in the third round. She earned $140,000, accepted it and announced on Instagram, “Can’t wait for what the future holds for me.”

“My dream officially came true,” Kenin said on court Saturday. “I cannot even describe this feeling. It’s so emotional, and I’ve worked so hard. I’m just so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true, so if you have a dream, go for it, and it’s going to come true.”

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Sofia Kenin, Garbine Muguruza meet in unlikely Australian Open final

Sofia Kenin, Garbine Muguruza
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Sofia Kenin had never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Garbine Muguruza, while a two-time major champion, had not reached the quarterfinals in nearly two years.

Yet they meet in Saturday’s Australian Open final (3:30 a.m. ET), the end of a breakthrough event for the American Kenin and a resurgent one for the Spaniard Muguruza.

Kenin, a 21-year-old born in Moscow and raised as a tennis prodigy in Florida, was best known for beating Serena Williams in the third round of the French Open last spring.

While she lost her next match at Roland Garros to eventual champion Ash Barty, Kenin continued to show promise by reaching a pair of U.S. hard-court semifinals leading up to the U.S. Open.

But other, younger Americans had more talked-about Slam breakthroughs — Amanda Anisimova, 18, made the French Open semifinals, and Coco Gauff, 15, made the Wimbledon fourth round.

Yet Kenin’s overall strong play last season earned her the 14th seed in Melbourne. She rallied from a set down to beat Gauff in the fourth round. In her lone match against a seeded player, Kenin swept the home favorite Barty in the semifinals.

“I know that people haven’t really paid attention much to me in the past, but I had to establish myself, and I have,” Kenin said. “Of course, now I’m getting the attention. I like it.”

A few years ago, Muguruza showed the youthful dominance that Kenin must be dreaming of. At 20, she swept Williams 6-2, 6-2 in the 2014 French Open. Two years later, she beat Williams in the French Open final. A year after that, she won Wimbledon.

But Muguruza failed to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal last season. She didn’t fare much better in lesser events. She is unseeded at a Slam for the first time since the 2014 French Open.

“I’m happy to not be in the spotlight,” she said.

She can’t hide now.

Muguruza, after changing coaches and returning to 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, beat a trio of top-10 players in Melbourne, all in straight sets: Elina SvitolinaKiki Bertens and Simona Halep.

Muguruza dismissed the notion that she has an edge over Kenin, given her Slam experience. Kenin won their only previous meeting last September.

“The racket has to speak out there,” Muguruza said. “It doesn’t matter how many Grand Slams you have.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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American Sofia Kenin beats No. 1 Ash Barty, into Australian Open final

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Sofia Kenin never flinched.

Not when she was twice a point from dropping the opening set of her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open. Not when she was twice a point from dropping the second set, either.

And the American is into her first major final at age 21 — beating the woman ranked No. 1, Ash Barty, to get there. Now Kenin will need to beat a former No. 1, Garbiñe Muguruza, to grab the trophy.

Kenin saved a total of four set points to stop home hope Barty’s bid to give Australia a long-awaited singles champion at Melbourne Park, pulling out a 7-6 (6), 7-5 victory on a stiflingly hot Thursday.

“I was telling myself: ‘I believe in myself. If I lose the set, I’m still going to come out and believe,’” said the 14th-seeded Kenin, who never had been past the fourth round at a major. “Yeah, I really did a great job with it. I didn’t give up.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Muguruza fended off four set points in the opener of her semifinal and wound up defeating No. 4 Simona Halep 7-6 (8), 7-5 in a matchup of players who have won Wimbledon and the French Open but not the Australian Open.

It was a streaky contest: Muguruza led 5-3 in the first set before Halep took 15 of 17 points to earn a pair of set points. Muguruza then took seven consecutive points. And so on, until Halep put a shot in the net to relinquish that set, then smashed her racket and sat on the sideline, shaking her head.

“I wasn’t thinking I was down,” Muguruza said. “You keep going.”

Barty — who won the French Open last June, beating Kenin along the way — was hardly at her best Thursday, especially at the most crucial moments. Maybe she was burdened by the task of trying to become the first Australian woman since 1980 to get to the final of the country’s Grand Slam.

“Unfortunately, couldn’t quite scrap enough to get over the line,” said Barty, who held her niece on her lap at the post-match news conference. “Just didn’t play the biggest points well enough to win.”

Instead, Kenin is the first American other than a Williams sister to reach the Australian Open final since Lindsay Davenport in 1995. And Kenin is the first American woman to beat the No. 1 player at any major since Serena Williams topped Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2002.

“She has the ability to adapt,” Barty said. “She’s extremely confident at the moment, as well.”

Those inside the sport know. But Kenin has been overshadowed by some of the many other American women making waves in recent years.

“I mean, yeah, I know people haven’t really paid attention much to me in the past. I had to establish myself, and I have,” Kenin said. “Of course, now I’m getting the attention, which I like it. Not going to lie.”

Kenin, who was born in Russia and moved to Florida as a baby, burst onto the scene in 2019 by winning three singles titles, upsetting Serena Williams in the third round at Roland Garros, and soaring from No. 52 to No. 12 in the rankings.

She didn’t face a seeded player in this tournament until Thursday, but did eliminate 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff in the fourth round.

Barty and Kenin stepped out in Rod Laver Arena in the early afternoon under a cloudless sky and a vibrant sun. The temperature topped 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in the first set, 20 to 25 (10 to 15) degrees hotter than it’s been for much of a chillier-than-usual 1½ weeks so far at Melbourne Park.

Barty braced herself by wearing an ice towel around her neck at changeovers.

In addition to making it uncomfortable for players and fans alike, the conditions caused balls to zip through the air and fly off rackets, rendering it that much harder to control shots. Add that to some jitters, and neither woman was at her best in the opening set.

Barty’s one-handed slice backhand was not as reliable as it normally is. Kenin’s movement and groundstrokes seemed to lack their usual verve.

It took Kenin 43 minutes to register just one forehand winner, while 11 of her initial 14 points resulted from unforced errors by Barty.

After one lost point, Kenin hit herself in the thigh. On the next, she flubbed a high volley and dropped her racket to the ground. Up in the stands, Kenin’s father, Alexander, who is also her coach, put his hands on his head.

Hours later, he could smile as he looked back at the big win and ahead to what’s next.

“The basic plan that we developed, we stuck to it, and it looked like it worked,” Dad said.

Asked what he thought it will be like to see his daughter participate in her first Grand Slam final, he replied: “Never been there, so I don’t know. Let’s see.”

Barty had two chances to claim the first set but couldn’t. Same thing happened in the second.

Kenin now will climb into the top 10 of the rankings. One more win, and she’ll achieve something even more significant: The right to call herself a Grand Slam champion.

“She deserves that respect,” Barty said, “and she deserves the recognition.”

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