Australian Open 2020: Sofia Kenin turns adversity into glory as she scripts memorable final win over Garbine Muguruza

You don’t win a Grand Slam without having the ability to look danger in the eye and knock it out of the park. And as Sofia Kenin showed in that memorable 2-2 game in the deciding set, she has that ability in spades.

Musab Abid February 01, 2020 21:00:43 IST
Australian Open 2020: Sofia Kenin turns adversity into glory as she scripts memorable final win over Garbine Muguruza
  • In this tournament Sofia Kenin has shown us that she can not only rise to the occasion with aplomb, but can also hit the reset button after a bad phase.

  • Kenin doesn’t have the biggest of serves or the most powerful of groundstrokes, but she maximised what she had in a way that very few have been able to.

  • In both her quarter-final against Ons Jabeur and her semi-final against Ashleigh Barty, Kenin played every big point with the composure of a champion.

Two-two in the deciding set, 0-40 down. We thought that was the moment where the young upstart would finally buckle, and the accomplished champion would stamp her authority. Instead, it turned into one of the most exhilarating showcases of back-to-the-wall toughness that we’ve seen in recent memory.

Australian Open 2020 Sofia Kenin turns adversity into glory as she scripts memorable final win over Garbine Muguruza

Sofia Kenin kisses the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after defeating Garbine Muguruza in the women's singles final at the Australian Open on Saturday. AP Photo

After battling long and hard against the obviously more powerful Garbine Muguruza, Sofia Kenin was on the brink of seeing all her efforts go down the drain. The American had leaked two consecutive forehand errors which put her three break points down, and you could see the frustration on her face as she walked back to her mark. Kenin was fully aware that one missed step now would kill her momentum, and allow the suddenly charged-up Muguruza to grab control of the match.

It was, almost literally, a do or die situation for a 21-year-old playing her first ever Slam final. Could anyone have anticipated what would come next?

On the first of those break points, Kenin yanked Muguruza all around the baseline with a series of flat groundstrokes, and ended the rally with a high-risk inside-out backhand winner. On the next one, she controlled the rally with her deep crosscourt drives, and ended it again with a backhand winner. Recognising that the Kenin backhand was too much in the groove, Muguruza tried targeting her opponent’s forehand on her last break point. Kenin’s response? A searing forehand down the line winner that got the entire stadium out of their seats.

Kenin proceeded to throw down an ace on the next point, before ending the game with another forehand winner. Standing at the precipice of disaster, Kenin had produced five straight winners of such high quality that they made us go hunting for superlatives. It was clutch tennis at its finest, and it had come from the most unlikely of sources.

A rank greenhorn who had never before gone beyond the fourth round of a Slam, coming up with a performance so nerveless that it would have made Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic proud? It was the stuff of dreams.

Kenin thought so too, but in a different context. “I just want to say that my dream has officially come true, I can’t even describe this feeling,” she said after the match. “It’s so emotional and I’ve worked so hard and I’m just so grateful to be standing here.

“Dreams come true, so if you have one, go for it.”

Kenin probably never dreamed about the specific instance of saving three break points with stone-cold winners and going on to complete a breakthrough performance for the ages. But she did always have dreams of glory, and when she said ‘go for it’, she was only echoing what she had just done.

Right from the start of the tournament, Kenin went for it. The youngster doesn’t have the biggest of serves or the most powerful of groundstrokes, but she maximised what she had in a way that very few have been able to. More importantly, she took her chances when she got them.

In both her quarter-final against Ons Jabeur and her semi-final against Ashleigh Barty, Kenin played every big point with the composure of a champion. She took her biggest risks when the stakes were the highest, and yet refused to miss. You can’t teach something like that; you’re just born with it.

On Saturday against Muguruza, Kenin was a little less clean with her groundstrokes at the start, coughing up 15 unforced errors in the first set to lose it 6-4. But in this tournament Kenin has shown us that she can not only rise to the occasion with aplomb, but can also hit the reset button after a bad phase. In the first game of the second set she held serve comfortably, and there was something about her celebratory scream after it that told us she wasn’t going to go away.

Muguruza probably sensed the same thing, because over the next 45 minutes she played with a tightness that had been absent all tournament. The Spaniard started overhitting routine forehands and making untimely double faults, and in almost no time she lost the set 6-2.

By the start of the third set Kenin clearly looked like the better player, and it was almost a surprise that she couldn’t break in the first two games. Then that episode at 2-2, 0-40 happened, and Muguruza failed to win a game after it.

Can you blame her though? Just about anyone would be rattled in the face of that kind of gumption.

When Kenin took the mic at the trophy presentation, her first words were, “This is my first speech, so I’m going to try my best.” She then broke into a fit of giggles. And just like that, the spell was broken: for the first time in the evening we were reminded that this was a player barely into her 20s who had never faced a stage of such magnitude before, rather than an experienced champion who knew how to deal with adversity.

But composure that goes well beyond her years is not the only thing unique about Kenin; she also brings something new to the table with her special brand of tennis. Since the start of last year the women’s tour has seen players with vastly different skill-sets winning Slams — the aggressive hard-hitter Naomi Osaka, the old-school serve-based attacker Ashleigh Barty, the genre-defining counterpuncher Simona Halep, and the agelessly eclectic Bianca Andreescu. Kenin has continued that pattern, but what is it that makes her game unique?

For one thing, Kenin is hard to pigeonhole as an aggressor or a counterpuncher. She can take on both roles interchangeably, depending on the opponent or the match situation. While she doesn’t possess the firepower of the bigger players — Kenin is only 5’7” — she takes the ball early and hits it flat, which can deprive her opponents of time.

Moreover, Kenin’s baseline patterns are not predictable like those of most modern-day ball-bashers. She’s not the kind of player who will go big crosscourt and then hit a down-the-line follow-up into the open court; instead, she constantly tries to wrong-foot her opponents with her last-minute change-ups, and is just as likely to hit a drop shot from the middle of the court as a missile into the corner.

Kenin’s serve is so quirky that it almost seems like it doesn’t belong on a tennis court. The American first looks at the ground with the ball in her hand, as though she is meditating. Then she throws the ball up in a swift robotic motion, while looking straight ahead rather than at the thing she’s supposed to be hitting. Finally, she brings the racquet down in what is the only thing conventional about the whole shot, but often without a lot of pace; her average first serve speed in the final was 154 kmph.

But she somehow makes all these working parts come together effectively, which is all that matters. Kenin got 74 percent of her first serves in against Muguruza and won 65 percent of her second serve points, which is why she was so difficult to break. She also struck more groundstroke winners than Muguruza — 26 to 23 — despite the Spaniard being much taller and stronger.

Kenin’s game is still a work in progress, but it is already giving the top players fits with its quirks and tricks.

After the match, Muguruza struggled to hold back the tears as she took the mic for her speech. The 26-year-old hasn’t displayed much emotion the last two weeks, and has been unusually impassive even in her press conferences. But her erratic performance in the final, where she made 45 unforced errors (including eight double faults), probably reminded her just how difficult it is to win a tournament of this stature — and the tears naturally followed.

You can be good for 13 days of a fortnight in tennis, but if you aren’t up to scratch on the 14th, the trophy is taken away from you. That is enough to make even the toughest of champions lose control — just think back to the 2009 trophy presentation right here in Melbourne.

That’s not to say Muguruza has nothing to take away from this year’s Australian Open though. Reunited with her old coach Conchita Martinez after two years in the wilderness, Muguruza played a majority of the tournament with an uncharacteristic clarity of thought. She delighted the crowds with her spectacular shot-making in a way that only she can, and reminded us that she still has a lot of champion-level tennis left in her.

How much champion-level tennis does Kenin have in her? She has joined Osaka, Andreescu and Jelena Ostapenko as a Slam champion from the WTA NextGen, and it’s not hard to predict that she will be in the top echelons of the sport for the foreseeable future. Her ultimate ceiling will depend on the improvements she makes in her game, but the good news is that she has the mindset of a champion already.

You don’t win a Slam without having the ability to look danger in the eye and knock it out of the park. And as Kenin showed in that memorable 2-2 game, she has that ability in spades.

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