MELBOURNE, Australia -- Sofia Kenin may not hit the ball as hard or serve as many aces as her colleagues, but she will go to extraordinary lengths, not to leave the court as a second-best player. And that may be the greatest tennis gift of them all.
The 21-year-old American completed a dynamite run to the first Major of the year, winning the first title of her ascending career. Meeting the moment, looking it square in the eye and shaking its hand, Kenin outlasted Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
This will go down as a surprise win. The 14th-seeded Kenin had never played deep in a Major, and had only won three small titles. But she has an unbreakable backhand, a connoisseur’s taste for battle and a relentlessness shared by few other players. Don’t be surprised if this result seems less surprising as time goes by.
Apart from the trophy, here’s what Kenin leaves with: a heightened profile, a Top 10 ranking for the first time, a virtual certainly of representing the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics and, maybe most important, a new reputation for being a Major contender.
* Muguruza didn’t execute a comeback here, so much as she executed a complete rewriting of her tennis story. Clearly struggling and clearly unhappy, her ranking had drifted outside the Top 30 – intolerably low for such a talented, accomplished player. And whatever the opposite of fulfilled is, she looked the opposite. Then the Australian Open began and she connected with new coach, Conchita Martinez, and with it her old self.
In six matches, Mugu beat more Top 10 players than she had in all of 2019. She reverted to striking one of the biggest balls in the women’s game. And she won an outright battle against Simona Halep in the semifinals -- perhaps the best women’s match in the tournament. And still she leaves this tournament feeling a bit of a sting against first-time Major finalist, Kenin. Muguruza won the first set, but couldn’t quite lasso her power or penetrate the opponent’s defense and lost a match that, by all rights, she ought to have won.
* Another Major, another curious result on the women’s side.
All top 10 seeds reached the third round; then more than half lost when they got there. That included Serena Williams, who couldn’t fulfill a true opportunity to win a Major. Caroline Wozniacki gracefully retired. Somewhat less seamlessly, Naomi Osaka lost to 15-year-old Coco Gauff ... who then lost to Kenin. The top seed and favorite, Ash Barty, lost to Kenin as well.
In the end – to the dismay of those who measure success by American TV ratings — the final pitted an unseeded Spaniard against an admirably feisty American. And yet this result ultimately speaks well of the WTA. A relentless if undersized player reached beat an offensive player who revived her career.