Australian Open 2020: 21-year-old Sofia Kenin victorious over Garbine Muguruza

Kenin is youngest American woman to win Major since Serena Williams; “My dream has officially come true!”

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Sofia Kenin
Sofia Kenin (Photo: Screengrab)

It is probably fair to say that few pundits would have predicted the final line-up in the women’s draw come closing Saturday.

This intriguing title match featured the No14 seed Sofia Kenin against an unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, and both had come through big names and big champions to set this showdown.

They were, indeed, about to contest the first Australian Open final in the Open Era between players ranked outside the top 10.

Muguruza, of course, had tasted the Major big-time before, being a former champion at Roland Garros, when just 22 years old, and at Wimbledon. She had even hit the No1 ranking back in September 2017, but she had won just two titles since lifting the trophy at the All England Club in 2017—in the WTA International in Monterrey in the last two years.

These recent wins were modest achievements as the Spanish star struggled to maintain consistency and confidence. Last year, she won just one match after the French Open, though her preparation for Melbourne this year had shown more signs of promise with a handful of wins in Shenzhen and Hobart.

And once in Melbourne, she strode beyond the quarters for the first time in her career, and won back-to-back matches over top-10 women for the first time since 2017. It seemed as though her renewed tie-up with another Spanish Major champion, Conchita Martinez, was working its magic again.

For Muguruza beat No5 Elina Svitolina in the second round, then No9 Kiki Bertens, followed by No30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and finally one of the favourites for the title, No4 Simona Halep.

It all took her into a Major final for just the fourth time—but there, she encountered the brand-new package of American Kenin, who was ranked just 56 a year ago, but who went on to win her first three titles from four finals last season. And among those wins was a significant one: over Muguruza in Beijing last autumn.

Kenin was the last woman standing from perhaps the toughest quarter of the Australian draw, having beaten teenage prodigy Coco Gauff and the world No1 Ash Barty. She was now the youngest Australian finalist since 2008, younger even than Naomi Osaka, who went on to win the title last year.

So this was already an extraordinary story, made more so by this young woman’s history: moving from Russia as a baby with her father, beginning tennis age five, hitting with the likes of Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams as a child, and quickly touted as a future star. Now, should she win the title, she would rise to No7 in the world.

But could she really beat another former Major champion in her very first Major final?

Kenin is a bustling, fleet-footed player who exudes confidence from every pore, and she got things underway with a nerveless hold, breaking out her destructive drop shot and baseline variety.

Indeed it was Muguruza who looked the more tense, belying her calm, elegant demeanour around this packed stage. The Spaniard needed to get her serve working, and her high ball-toss soon infused some rhythm after going 0-30 down. Muguruza made her first volley winner—one of the big new weapons in her game—to hold.

Now the Spaniard got into her stride, worked four deuces and three break points, the last courtesy of a pounding return-of-serve backhand, and she converted it to break. She found herself facing deuce in the fourth game after two double faults, but held for 3-1.

Kenin, though, was about to unleash her full potential, and threatened serve in the next game with some gruelling baseline tennis that used all the angles and dimensions of the court, taking the ball early, earning deuce. The Spaniard held, 4-2, but her first serve was not finding the mark often enough to impose itself on the American.

Kenin then battled to hold serve from 0-40 down, and struck some outstanding drives, corner to corner, through three deuces and a total of four break points, to hold for 3-4, and she ran to her seat.

A few slaps of her thigh, and it was clear Kenin meant business, felt she had her opponent on the back foot, and a double fault brought up break-back points. Another Spanish double fault, and Kenin was back level, 4-4, but it did not last.

Muguruza regrouped, earned break points of her own, while Kenin paced the baseline, chivvying herself, but it was to no avail. The Spaniard broke again, and this time her serve came good: she allowed herself a rare show of emotion as she sealed the set, 6-4.

Kenin got straight back to business with an impressive love hold to open Set 2, and Muguruza responded in kind. The American’s impressive power and accuracy, combined with variety of spin, kept Muguruza pinned back, and she held to love again.

The Spaniard was being forced into errors, and the persistent length and changing spins from Kenin forced the break. The American clenched her fist, kept things moving at a high pace, and then held again, for the loss of just one point, 4-1.

Muguruza had to serve to save the set, and was forced into more errors and more second serves. The latter were punished with relish, and it earned Kenin another break and the set, 6-2.

Kenin had the look of a woman with no doubt at all in her ability to win this Major title, and her smart, spirited tennis was also enthusing the Melbourne crowd. The Spanish woman looked nonplussed, out of ideas for how to contain this whirlwind, and Kenin held the opening game with ease.

Muguruza finally stemmed the run of three games with a love hold, 1-1, and a much stronger service game in the fourth, finished with a blistering smash, drew a huge roar from the Spaniard. And she roared again at each of the three points that took her to 0-40 and three break points in the fifth game.

Yet again, Kenin impressed with two backhand down-the-line winners, then a forehand winner down the other line, plus just her second ace of the match. She held with a forehand pass. It was a stunning hold, with an equally stunning break to follow, 4-2. And the American impresses time and again, now with a killer forehand slice, now a dazzling pass.

Serving to save the match, Muguruza looked fine until, for the third time in the match, she hit two double faults. It was deuce, and a return of serve winner made it match point. Muguruza had a look of disbelief, of desperation on her face. Another return-of- serve winner earned another match point, and for one last time, the Spaniard double faulted. Kenin had won, 6-2, in two hours of dynamic entertainment. Women’s tennis had a new Major champion—and Kenin never seemed to doubt it.

Both women fought back tears through the speeches of the presentation ceremony. For Muguruza, it was a bitter-sweet moment—a return to the top table after so long in the doldrums, but let down so badly by her biggest weapon, that serve.

She admitted: “I’ll keep it short because I’m going to get very emotional.” In the event, she held it together admirably.

And Kenin was as impressive in addressing her new fans as she had been with her tennis: “OK, this is my first speech, but I am going to try my best…

“I want to say my dream has officially come true! I cannot describe this feeling, it’s so emotional, I am so grateful to stand here—dreams come true, so go for it.”

There is no doubting that this lively, confident and smart young player is going to enjoy such moments many more times. For now, she can bask in the knowledge that she has become the youngest American woman to win a Major since Serena Williams. Not bad company.

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