Sofia Kenin

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Sofia Kenin leads U.S. Olympic tennis qualifying after Australian Open

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Sofia Kenin not only earned her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, but she also moved closer to one of her modest goals for 2020: qualifying for her first Olympics.

Kenin supplanted Serena Williams atop U.S. Olympic qualifying standings more than halfway through the process. The top four U.S. singles players in the WTA Rankings after the French Open in June are in line to play in Tokyo.

Kenin is all but assured a spot, since she is more than 3,000 points ahead of the No. 5 American, Coco Gauff. A Grand Slam title nets a player 2,000 points. Second-tier tournaments like in Miami and Indian Wells in March offer 1,000 points to winners.

Kenin plays doubles with countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has signaled her intent for the Tokyo Games. If the current singles standings hold, and Mattek-Sands is added to the Olympic team for doubles with Kenin, one discretionary doubles spot would be left.

The U.S. Tennis Association could go with the next-highest-ranked singles player — currently the 15-year-old Gauff — or perhaps Venus Williams, the most decorated Olympic tennis player in history, to pair with Serena. Gauff is younger than any Olympic tennis player since Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova in 1996.

Venus Williams, who turns 40 on June 17, could become the second-oldest female Olympic tennis player in the modern era after Martina Navratilova (47 at the 2004 Athens Games).

The U.S. men’s picture is far different. The top American in Olympic qualifying — Sam Querrey — ruled out playing in the Olympics. The top U.S. man in current ATP rankings — No. 18 John Isner — said he’s leaning to skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

That U.S. should still qualify four men for the field of 64 with the likes of 22-year-old Taylor Fritz and Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren.

Notably, two men who are currently not in outright Olympic singles qualifying position: Brit Andy Murray, who won the last two Olympic titles, and Japan’s most decorated player, Kei Nishikori. Murray and Nishikori missed the Australian Open with injuries.

However, there is one Olympic place reserved for a past Olympic or Grand Slam champion — should his nation not have qualified the full four singles spots — which would conceivably go to Murray. And Nishikori, who last played at last summer’s U.S. Open, can take a protected ranking.

U.S. Olympic tennis singles qualifying standings through Australian Open:

Women
1. Sofia Kenin — 4,051 points
2. Serena Williams — 3,595
3. Alison Riske — 2,053
4. Madison Keys — 1,972
5. Coco Gauff — 979
6. Jennifer Brady — 726
7. Danielle Collins — 692
Outside the top 10
Venus Williams — 449
Sloane Stephens — 431

Men
1. Sam Querrey — 920 (skipping Olympics)
2. Taylor Fritz — 900
3. John Isner — 890 (likely skipping Olympics)
4. Tennys Sandgren — 727
5. Reilly Opelka — 705
6. Tommy Paul — 615
7. Steve Johnson — 580

MORE: Coco Gauff eyes Olympics; can she qualify?

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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.”

MORE: Coco Gauff eyes Olympics; can she qualify?

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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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