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Sofia Kenin is American tennis' newest star
  | By Brian Coleman
Photo Credit: Brian Coleman

 

This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition


In what has been a tumultuous year, Sofia Kenin posted the best year of her professional career. As a result, Kenin was named the WTA’s Player of the Year for 2020, the eighth American ever to earn the honor and the first since Serena Williams won the award four straight times between 2012-2015.

Although she did not reach the world’s highest ranking, it’s hard to argue that any woman on tour had a better year than Kenin, who achieved her highest career ranking, No. 4, a spot that she finished the year at. Kenin’s honor marks the 14th time (since the WTA awards were created 44 years ago) that a player other than the world number one was named the player of the year.

Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding 2020, Kenin was dominating during the season and had a determined mindset throughout the year.

“Winning, definitely,” she said at the French Open in the fall when asked what she loves about tennis. “That’s my answer. Losing I really hate, and I love winning. I try to do everything I can to win.”

That unrelenting desire to win paid off this year, as Kenin won her first career major at the Australian Open in January 2020. After downing world number one and hometown favorite Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals, she beat former major winner Garbine Muguruza in straight sets in the finals.

Kenin won her first major title at the Australian Open in 2020. Photo Credit: Getty Images (courtesy of Tennis Australia)

 

Before her win, Kenin saw many of her peers win their first major titles, and wanted to add her name to the list.

“When I saw Naomi and Bianca win a Grand Slam, I was super excited. At that young age and winning a Slam, I mean, super exciting. You get so much attention,” Kenin told WTA Insider following her victory. “I remember I was just like, ‘you know what? What if it would be me? How incredible would that be?’ I’m just super happy and it’s an honor just to be on that beautiful trophy with so many great champions. And it will forever be there. So it’s just incredible.”

That envisioning has been a part of Kenin’s DNA since she was young. By now, most people have seen the videos of her as a little girl talking about returning Andy Roddick’s serve, and her getting a tour of a WTA tournament from Kim Clijsters in 2005.

From the beginning, Kenin’s parents put in the necessary sacrifices in order to give Kenin a platform to succeed. Her parents, Alexander and Lena, had moved to the United States briefly, before returning to Russia for Sofia’s birth so that her extended family could assist in raising her.

A few years later they would move back to the United States, where Kenin began playing tennis at the age of five and immediately showed signs of promise, most notably working with famed tennis coach Rick Macci at his academy in Florida. From the beginning, Macci recognized there was something special about Kenin.

“She came to me at five-years-old and the very first lesson I gave her, her ability to focus and just the way she was locked in mentally already was really startling,” Macci told

 Omnisport. “For most players, that’s the last piece of the puzzle, so that was the first thing that jumped out to me. Even though the racket was almost as big as her, I had her take the ball right off the bounce and she did it so easily, it was innate timing. You can teach people timing, but it can be hard to take in.”

The win in Melbourne kicked off a fantastic season that also included a key doubles win in the deciding rubber match with Bethanie Mattek-Sands as Team USA defeated Team Latvia to keep its Fed Cup championship hopes alive. The following month, she won four straight matches in three sets to win the title in Lyon, and would return to France later in the year as she reached the French Open finals in September.

Despite losing the match, Kenin took a lot of positives away from her run at Roland Garros, and her season as a whole, and she knows that from now on she will play the role of hunted as opposed to the hunter.


 

“After the Australian Open, people started to know me. Keeping this level and playing some great tennis now is really special,” she said. “I feel people definitely respect me and I’m happy. It’s not easy to get respect. It’s really easy to lose it. People respect me. I’m going to keep it that way.”

And with that mentality, Kenin is now one of American tennis’ biggest stars, and the future of the sport on the women’s side. She enters 2021 as the highest ranked American, man or woman, and begins the season with a lot of ranking points to defend at the Australian Open.

The 2020 season ended early on the women’s side, with no events through the fall and winter including the cancellation of the end-of-year finals in Shenzhen, an event that Kenin would have made her debut at. But that meant that the 22-year-old was able to begin her offseason training earlier than normal, and the dedicated player got right to it.

She posted photos to her official Instagram account of her hitting and running down in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and indication that Kenin would not rest on her laurels but instead aim to come back stronger than ever in 2021.

Her season will, most likely, start Down Under where she will be one of the tournament’s favorites and, of course, it’s defending champion. She hasn’t said a lot in recent weeks, including not commenting on her winning WTA’s Player of the Year, but rather has just put her head down and continued to work.

While she was confident last year, and has expected to win Grand Slams since she was younger, winning that first title always comes as a shock.

“I would like to thank the crowd,” she said in 2020. “These past two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life. I love you guys from the bottom of my heart...I’m on cloud nine right now, I just can’t believe this.”

That will be different in 2021 as Kenin enters the season with higher expectations, both from herself and the tennis world, as she looks to add more hardware to her collection.

While Serena Williams will remain the face of women’s tennis and American tennis, even beyond when she retires, Kenin is the best American competing on tour right now. That title comes with lofty expectations and enormous pressure, but is something that Kenin embraces, and has been ready for since she was a little girl.

 

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com