MELBOURNE, Australia – No.14 seed Sofia Kenin won a late-night tussle with Zhang Shuai to progress to the fourth round of the Australian Open with a 7-5, 7-6(7) victory.
The 21-year-old was playing in the last 32 for the first time, having qualified without dropping a set, and she was given a stern examination by a determined opponent who had already knocked out compatriots Sloane Stephens and Catherine McNally.
Kenin, who has yet to drop a set at the tournament, had to show all her mental fortitude to fight back in the opener from set point down on two occasions, then in the second came out on top in a tiebreak having twice been a break behind early in the set.
“It’s late, but I’m happy to have gone through and I’m really excited,” she said following a match in which she made 75% of her first serves.
“I was just fighting. There were a lot of close shots, so I needed to step up my game and I’m so proud of myself.”
The WTA World No.15 initially struggled to find her rhythm and was broken immediately after finding just one first serve in the opening game.
After falling 3-0 down in just eight minutes, Kenin began to find her range and was the aggressor for much of the set. She found Zhang in belligerent form, however, with the Chinese fending off five break points to protect her lead in an epic fifth game.
The Chinese No.2 continued to be exceptionally dogged in the face of her opponents’ hard hitting but crucially passed up two opportunities to seal the set, firing wide with a simple forehand before a clean winner from her opponent changed the course of the match.
A couple of sizzling forehands off the Kenin racquet levelled matters as Zhang served for the set and she maintained the momentum to streak through five successive games and claim the initiative.
The arm wrestle between the two women continued into the second set, with Zhang’s consistency contrasted with the fiery play of her opponent. It made for an intriguing spectacle, with neither player able to establish a clear upper hand as two breaks each were traded en route to a tiebreak.
Sudden death proved to be just as tight and tense as the 12 games that had preceded it, with neither player giving the other an inch.
A pumped up Kenin, who hit 34 winners to 33 unforced errors, made a break in the ninth point as Zhang, who finished with 30 in both the winners and unforced error counts, fired long but missed two match points before ultimately sealing a fourth-round meeting with Coco Gauff, conqueror of defending champion Naomi Osaka, at the third attempt.
“I wasn’t aware I was playing her!” she admitted. “She’s playing really well; she had a great 2019. But I’m going to enjoy the moment right now.”