There was no perspective as Sofia Kenin cursed herself to the brink of tears in the Australian Open final, even while leading on the scoreboard.
No perspective as she marched from serve to serve with a tyrannical efficiency that would have made Rafael Nadal ill, then slammed balls into the ground after holding.
As she incessantly flung her finger into the air to call out Garbine Muguruza’s errant shots, or gave herself a sharp ‘come on’ when her opponent made an unforced error. As she returned so many balls to the incredulous Spaniard that Muguruza imploded with three double faults in the final game.
For Kenin, it was as though victory or doom were the only possible outcomes. Grand Slam trophy or failure. There was no perspective outside of what was happening on Rod Laver Arena, there, then. Her moment had arrived; her family’s moment. She would not let it slip.
“I have part of Russian stuff inside me, fight and fierce that I have. Trying just to be confident, do what I do best,” Kenin, born in Moscow but raised in Florida, later said.
“I think there is something there [in Russians]. The root. The root is very tough. Tough and bitter. What is around it is a decoration, but there is something inside.”
Having already beaten world No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the semis, 14th-seeded Kenin was the Australian Open champion. It took two hours and three minutes; it took 21 years, two months and 18 days.
Barty left Melbourne Park with a reminder about perspective, in the form of her beautiful baby niece. Kenin left with the trophy and a $4 million winner’s cheque, 33 years after her parents left the Soviet Union with $300 to their name. She was introduced to the game at three, recognised as a potential champion at five and first declared that she wanted to be world No.1 at six. Her father, Alexander, has remained her primary coach throughout; after starting his American dream as a cab driver with no English.
Barty, though a prodigy who began tennis at age four, played because it was fun. Kenin played because it was life.
“Back then [when Kenin was five], I came right out and said Sofia was the scariest little creature I’d ever seen,” Rick Macci, her childhood coach in Florida, told The New York Times last year.
“It was unique: the hand-eye coordination and her ability to take the ball immediately right after the bounce. I have a lot of kids do that, but it was almost like it was baked in already, even though she was little and the racquet was actually bigger than her. The only player I’ve seen like that is Martina Hingis.”
Macci developed a nickname for Kenin: The Mosquito. She never goes away.
“People on tour know now that I won’t give up,” Kenin said during the Open.
“If you want to beat me, you have to really beat me. You have to finish it. No matter what the score is, I’m still going to be there fighting and doing my best to turn the match around, and I’ve done it a few times.”
Muguruza discovered that on Saturday night. Kenin’s intensity was so fierce that it was disconcerting. She had tears in her eyes on relatively meaningless points, even as the match turned in her favour. Her pseudo umpiring, her screams on Muguruza errors … breaches of tennis etiquette, perhaps, but that unwritten code is reserved for the privileged for whom tennis is simply a game.
Tennis is more than a game to Barty. It is a career, a passion, but it is not the be-all and end-all of life.
Barty would not still be playing tennis had she not once quit, having exiled herself to find balance. To develop deeper perspective.
She found it again after she followed her French Open win with fourth round exits at Wimbledon and the US Open, on preferred surfaces to the Roland Garros clay. She kept her head, won the WTA Finals and not even the $6.4 million cheque – the richest in tennis history – changed her perspective or humility.
Sport, like life, is a horses for courses business. Barty likes mucking around with Sherrins and cricket bats while taking the piss with her team. She is even-tempered on court, whether up or down. Kenin prefers extreme intensity. It began in the long driveway of her family’s Pembroke Pines home, hitting with her dad when he wasn’t working to make ends meet, and it took her all the way to the Australian Open podium.
Both, evidently, are Grand Slam-winning formulas. Yet in this instance, less perspective prevailed, rather than more. The singular mentality forged at age three, not the view tempered during a hiatus in cricket’s Big Bash League. Barty had greater talent. Kenin had more purpose when it mattered.
Kenin beat Barty in straight sets, 7-6 7-5, saving set points in both. Where Barty and fellow Slam winner Muguruza brought perspective, Kenin brought an unsettling feeling to the other side of the court: She can not miss. Barty and Muguruza brought superior games. Kenin delivered superior performance.
Kenin made 74 per cent of her first serves in the final. She somehow won more points on her second serve than her first; 65 per cent against 64 per cent. She hit 28 winners to just 23 unforced errors, while winning 92 points to Muguruza’s 77, and five-of-six break points against two-of-12. It was a ruthless performance, highlighted by huge shots in the biggest moments.
Barty’s final four appearance was a continuation of a dream run. Muguruza announced that she is back as a major force. Both will win plenty in the coming years.
Barty will continue to win well after she is retired. Her perspective should make her not only a content and healthy tennis retiree, but a treasured national figure. Her Young Australian of the Year Award was an early nod to the regard in which she may held long after she’s hung up her racquet.
Yet a monumental opposing force has just hit women’s tennis. Kenin was born to play and born to win. She will do it her way, which is fearless, ferocious, unrelenting.
Respected US commentator Pam Shriver compared her to Monica Seles during the Open final. Seles won nine Grand Slams, including four Australian Opens, during a career brutally halted by an on-court stabbing attack. Her will to win could not be denied.
Seles began playing tennis at age five, the daughter of ambitious US immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. She too rose to prominence in Florida. Seles set a template for the likes of Kenin and Maria Sharapova; another Russian-Floridian of modest background, who has won five Slams and reaped an estimated personal wealth well in excess of $100 million.
Kenin just became the youngest American top 10 player since Serena Williams in 1999; the year she won her first major at the US Open. Intriguingly, she has never been an especially fancied talent.
Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, went so far as to say during the Open that her game was “unimpressive”; yet that was while tipping her to beat Barty, due to her manic competitiveness. So it proved. Kenin’s Melbourne Park triumph has launched a new stardom that seems destined to include more majors.
Barty will be right there with her, a peer yet in many ways a polar opposite. It will be an intriguing rivalry for the Australian, during which she will no doubt keep an admirable dose of perspective.