There were brief moments early in her 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win at Rod Laver Arena – witnessed by, among many celebrities, the man himself and Margaret Court, the finest Australian player in the history of the game – when Kenin looked as if she might find the occasion too much for her.
Those who know her well talk of a quiet, shy player but on court she has the stamp of a champion, sure of her ability and able to fight her way out of tight corners, which she has had to do several times in the final stages of the tournament, as the matches became tougher.
“This is my first speech, but I’m going to try my best,” she said before going into a blizzard of thank yous that took in everyone from her opponent, the crowd, her team and her parents. “My dream officially came true. I am so emotional. I have worked so hard. These have been the best two weeks of my life.”
Smiling and nursing a glass of champagne more than an hour later, Kenin was a picture of youthful joy and contentment, paying tribute to her Russian roots. “I definitely think [that] helped me,” she said. “I’ve looked up to Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova. I followed their matches when I was little. I feel like I got the feisty thing. I saw what it’s like. She won a grand slam at 17, Maria, which I remember watching it on TV. I have part of Russian stuff inside me, the fight and fierceness that I have. Trying just to be confident, do what I do best. And thank you to my parents for giving me the American dream.”
She added: “I’m so proud of myself, my dad, my team, everyone that has been around me. We’ve worked all hard. We’ve been through tough times. We did it. We fought. I’m on cloud nine.”
On Saturday, Sofia Kenin became the tournament’s Grand Slam champion, defeating Garbiñe Muguruza in three sets, (4-6, 6-2, 6-2).
The win marks the 21-year-old athlete’s first-ever Grand Slam title and also makes her the youngest woman to win the Australian Open since Maria Sharapova, who won the tournament at the age of 20 in 2008.
“This is my first speech but I’m going to try my best,” the American athlete said on the court following her momentous victory. “My dream officially came true. I cannot even describe this feeling. It’s so emotional. I worked so hard and I’m just so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true.”
After the trophy ceremony, she added: “I’m on cloud nine right now, I just can’t believe this.”
Prior to the Saturday final, Kenin previously defeated players such as No. 1 ranked Ashleigh Barty and 15-year-old Coco Gauff — who upset Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open’s reigning women’s champion — to land herself a slot in the finals.
In the semifinals, Muguruza upset No. 4 seed Simona Halep in two sets, winning, 7-6 (8), 7-5.
Back in 1987, 11 years before new Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin was born, her parents left Moscow for New York City, eager to escape the Soviet Union and live in the United States because, as her father, Alex, put it: “You want to see the world. You want a better future for your kids.”
Alex took English classes and attended computer school during the day; he drove for a car service at night, straining to understand the dispatcher’s radioed instructions.
“It was very tough,” he says now, “but it’s amazing the things you do when you need to survive.”
Just before Sofia was born, the family briefly returned to Russia so Grandma and other relatives could help with the baby. A few months later, the Kenins went back to New York. Eventually, they settled in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and it was in the driveway of their home there that Sofia, at age 3½, found her calling.
“I wasn’t into any other toys. I always liked to play with balls and with a racket. So my dad said, ‘Let’s go try it and play.’ Obviously I had great hand-eye coordination. I saw I was really different than other players,” she said, a Champagne flute an arm’s length away as she spoke with a small group of reporters after Saturday had turned to Sunday at Melbourne Park. “And people said, ‘You know she’s really special. Something about her.’ . . . And look where I am.”
Indeed, look at where, and who, she is: owner of a Grand Slam trophy and expected to be No. 7 — the highest U.S. woman currently — when the WTA rankings are released Monday.
Kenin won the last four games of the final at Melbourne Park with some gutsy play at the most crucial moments, beating two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
One key sequence decided the outcome.
Kenin faced three break points while serving at 2-all, love-40 in the third set. All she did was conjure up an ace and four point-ending groundstrokes on exchanges that all lasted 11 shots or more.
“She pulled out something unbelievable,” said Alex Kenin, who is his daughter’s coach and calls her “Sonya,” the Russian nickname for Sofia.
In all, Kenin converted five of six break points and erased 10 of Muguruza’s 12.
“Especially in the important moments, I think,” Muguruza said, “she came out with winners.”
Muguruza said she thought Kenin handled the emotions of a major final debut well and didn’t seem to show any jitters. Alex Kenin, though, said he could tell earlier in the day his child was nervous because he saw “tears in her eyes” and she was “trying to hold it back.”
The victory made Kenin the youngest Australian Open champion since 2008, when Maria Sharapova — someone else with Russian roots whose game was grown on the courts of Florida — was 20.
Kenin also will be the youngest American to make her debut in the Top 10 of the rankings since Serena Williams was 20 in 2002.
It was a win over Williams in the third round of the 2019 French Open, Kenin’s deepest run at a Grand Slam tournament until this week, that helped provide a boost that keeps propelling her forward.
Kenin might have been overlooked by some before, when younger Americans such as 15-year-old Coco Gauff and 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova were making deep runs at majors and gaining all the attention.
But other players knew what Kenin could do.
And so, certainly, did she. She proved it to the world by coming back from a set down to eliminate Gauff in the fourth round this week; by erasing a total of four set points while getting past current No. 1 and reigning French Open champion Ash Barty in the semifinals; by ignoring that she was “absolutely devastated” after losing the opening set against Muguruza, a former No. 1 who won titles at Roland Garros in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017.
Her forehands and backhands are reliable, her drop shots and lobs are terrific, her ball-retrieval is top-class.
But what does Kenin consider her best attribute on a tennis court?
“The fight in me,” she said. “I feel like that’s something you can’t teach. I feel like you’ve got to have that. You’ve got to have that belief and the passion.”
She often refers to Serena Williams as her idol (as so many tennis players today do).
But Kenin also says she “copied a few people” for various aspects of her playing style.
“I’ve looked up to Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova. I followed their matches when I was little. I feel like I got the ‘feisty.’ I saw what it’s like,” Kenin said.
“Yeah, I feel like that definitely helped me. I have part of the Russian stuff inside me, (the) fight and fierce that I have. Trying just to be confident, do what I do best,” she said, before adding: “And thank you to my parents for giving me the American dream.”
That racket Kenin was swinging — and sometimes dropping, even kicking, out of frustration after bad points — against Muguruza?