Saturday, February 1, 2020

Zone, meet Sofia

For those fond of understatement, "under the radar" would be one way to describe Sofia Kenin's Australian Open run. Her career--post-juniors--has been largely ignored, even though she drew attention for her spirited Fed Cup play when she brought home the victory for the USA in the fourth rubber of last year's tie against Switzerland.

In Cincinnati last year, Kenin defeated both Julia Goerges and 7th seed Elina Svitlina, both in straight sets. She got a third set retirement from Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, and was finally stopped by eventual champion Madison Keys. Anyone who was paying attention saw a very clever and formidable competitor in the 21-year-old Floridian.

Like Alona Ostapenko, Kenin has an automatic reset button in her mentality. Something goes wrong, she makes a face (though she will never outclass Ostapenko in that department!), then moves on to the next point. This vital mental skill served Kenin well throughout her run in Melbourne, and was ultimately a major factor in her winning the championship.

The final pair competing in Melbourne may not have been what fans were expecting (though it's never really wise to rule out Garbine Muguruza at a big event), and the Muguruza-Halep semifinal was a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Kenin and Muguruza gave fans an exciting match, whose scoreline doesn't really reflect the ins and outs of the competition.

For her part, the unseeded Garbine Mugurza's appearance in the final, no matter what ultimately happened, was in itself an announcement, and that announcement screamed "I'm back!" More of a lost, wandering soul than an elite tennis player in the last couple of years, the Spaniard used her Melbourne run to remind us all of how superior her game is, with its sometimes breathtaking fluidity, big serving, power, and variety. And it was no surprise that she did this while under the guidance of Conchita Martinez.


During the off-season, Muguruza took a page from the Amelie Mauresmo playbook and climbed a mountain--Mount Kilimanjaro, to be exact. We have no way of knowing (though I hope that, some day, she tells us) the effect this adventure had on the Spaniard's mentality, but it's a safe bet to guess that it had a major one.

There was, however, some question as to whether the Spanish star would even play in the tournament. She arrived in Melbourne with a case of flu, and became ill in her opening match. After losing the first set 0-6, she had her blood pressure checked. Given the go-ahead, Muguruza returned to the court and won the match.

The two-time major champion's ability to control the situation was apparent in the first set of the final, when she broke Kenin twice to win the set 6-4. Muguruza was broken once, and--it should be noted--she had a lot more opportunities to break Kenin, but Kenin was able to save seven break points. At this point, it would have been easy (and I did flirt with the idea) that Muguruza was about to pick up her third major trophy. After all, Sofia Kenin--for all her mental toughness--had never won a major (she had never won anything beyond an international tournament title), and she had just lost the first set of her only major final to a two-time major champion.

Kenin's response to this reality was to totally ignore it. She began the second set as though it were the first, using her mind's giant eraser to blot out the fact that she was a set away from holding the runner-up plate. She also got a gift from Muguruza when errors started creeping into the Spanish star's game and her serving dominance decreased. Kenin took that set 6-2. Muguruza looked a bit tired, and--while commentators speculated that this was related to her tough semifinal against Simona Halep--I was more inclined to note that she entered the tournament with a case of influenza.

The third set became increasingly dramatic as it wore on, and reached its peak in the fifth game, when Kenin, down 0-40, hit four winners--three of them shot down the line--and a wickedly high ace into the deuce court to save five break points. I immediately flashed on an image of Flavia Pennetta, possibly the all-time Queen of Grit, in the fourth round of the 2009 U.S. Open. In that match, the Italian star hit six winners to save six match points.

After the 14th seed saved all those break points, the match was pretty much about her. Muguruza's serve became less and less effective. She double-faulted four times, including on match point, and Kenin emerged the champion with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Muguruza was subdued and sad at the trophy ceremony, which was understandable. She had lost, but also, she had fought so hard, especially against Halep--to get to the final, and she had given away match point in a way that no one, let alone a champion, wants to give it away.

Someone in the crowd held up a sign that said Mugu Is Back!, and that, too, is true. It is also a very good thing.

Russian-born Kenin (commentators were confused about Kenin's age, but none more so than Chris Evert, who informed us that Kenin had "come over from the Soviet Union") and her Russian-born father/coach rates about a 9 on the Sharapova/Sharapov Intensity Scale, which is fitting, since Sharapova is Kenin's tennis idol. She'll be someone to watch at the French Open, where she reached the round of 16 last year, knocking out Serena Williams in the third round, and losing to eventual champion Ash Barty.

About playing Muguruza, Kenin said: "I knew I had to take my chance. I had to be brave by playing a two-time Grand Slam champion. All respect to her. She played a really tough match. Every point, it was such a battle...."

And Sofia Kenin is nothing, if not brave. Stay tuned.

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