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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— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 1, 2020