When you watch Sofia Kenin bounce around the court, looking as though she would rather be on a 100m track than a tennis court, you feel like reaching out to her and asking her to calm down. Kenin is possibly the most nervously energetic player on the tour right now, and when she misses a groundstroke it almost seems inevitable.
Which is why it is so amazing that Kenin doesn’t miss for vast stretches of time. Her flat drives off either wing seem like they are being generated by a ball machine, with the only disruption in consistency coming in the form of the scream of delight or cry of anguish.
Kenin showed both of those things – consistency and emotions – in a 6-4, 6-4 win over Ons Jabeur that was tougher than the scoreline suggests. She is now into the first Slam semifinal of her career, and nobody can accuse her of not working for it.
Considering the American’s tendency to be so hyperactive on the court, the challenge for her from the outset was to remain steady in the face of Jabeur’s bag of tricks. The Tunisian is known for her clever changes of pace and ability to throw her opponents off-balance with a variety of different spins, which seemed like the perfect antidote to her opponent’s metronomic game.
But Kenin was having none of it, and she sent down a marker early in the match by taking her returns on the rise and robbing Jabeur of time. The 21-year-old went up a break at 2-1, and even though Jabeur got it back soon, it was clear that Kenin was not going to be intimidated by the novelty factory – either of her opponent, or of the stage.
The quarterfinal itself was also a first for her. In fact, Kenin had only once before reached the fourth round of a Slam; her mile-a-minute intensity seemed to rob her of the composure needed to stay in high-stakes matches. The only time she had gone reasonably deep at a Slam before this – Roland Garros last year – she failed to stay in the moment and ended up getting bageled in the deciding set.
What had worked for Kenin so well at the junior level – she was No. 2 in the world and a Slam runner-up – was working against her at the pro level. The top players often got her to collapse by slowing down the pace or drawing her forward, and up until last year it was hard to see how she would overcome that.
In that respect, it probably helped that Kenin didn’t have to face a single top 10 player on her way to the quarters. Her biggest test was Coco Gauff in the fourth round, and although Kenin did drop the first set there, she righted the ship soon enough and eventually overwhelmed the teenager with her weight of shot.
Maybe just the knowledge that she could last till the business end of a tournament was enough to put Kenin at ease, because against Jabeur she did a brilliant job of trusting her instincts. She still got the stadium buzzing with her rapidfire movements, but she also threw in her own changes of pace and measured lobs to outdo Jabeur at her own game. Kenin used the drop shot in particular to devastating effect, and the fact that she wasn’t afraid of the Tunisian’s strong forecourt play showed just how well she had embraced the big stage.
“It feels really good,” Kenin said after the match, talking as quickly as she moves on the court. “I'm super excited for it. I think overall I played really good. I tried to handle the nerves. Obviously nerves coming into this match. I think I did a really good job handling myself.”
You know she is fully aware of her issues when she talks about ‘handling herself’ immediately after winning a Slam quarterfinal. But Kenin had already proven that she is great at recognising what to improve and where to focus. The American won three titles last year and saw a meteoric rise in her ranking, which was commemorated by the WTA when they handed her the 2019 Most Improved Player of the Year award.
“Of course, I'm rising, so I'm trying to somehow keep my game stable, just play with stability, just play each match one match at a time,” Kenin said on Tuesday. That’s a good approach to have, especially if the next match you’re playing is against the World No. 1.
Kenin will face Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals, and it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that that will be her toughest assignment yet. Barty looked in terrific form against Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals and will have the home support too, so Kenin’s underdog status might be even more severe than you’d expect.
But the American can take comfort in the fact that Barty’s game is not all that different from Jabeur’s, in that it is predicated on variety and attacks from the net. Kenin did a good job of digging out Jabeur’s slices and volleys on Tuesday, and if she can do that against Barty too, she will have at least one box ticked in her bid to spoil the Aussie party.
One of the crucial tasks for Kenin will be to push Barty behind the baseline with her deep drives, and avoid making too many errors while she’s at it. Barty is a fabulous defender but she’s most comfortable when she’s playing a match on her terms, so Kenin could gain an upper hand if she can dictate the rallies from the middle of the court.
That said, the biggest challenge for Kenin will likely be her ability to slow things down if they start going against her. It was none other than Barty who had conquered Kenin in that Round of 16 match at Roland Garros last year, and the American would want to make amends by at least remaining competitive if the match goes to a decider.
Kenin doesn’t like to be calm on the court, but she tried alternating her restlessness with a bit of patience against Jabeur, and it worked like a charm. If she wants to beat Barty and reach her maiden Slam final, she’d have to do it again – and it may not be as improbable as it sounds.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 15:32:37 IST