MELBOURNE, Australia - 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin joins the WTA Insider Podcast to discuss her incredible run to her first major title.
En route to the title in Melbourne, the 21-year-old American defeated the likes of Zhang Shuai, Coco Gauff, Ons Jabeur, and No.1 Ashleigh Barty, before rallying to defeat former No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the final.
Listen to Kenin's full Champions Corner interview here or by clicking the tweet below. Subscribe to the WTA Insider Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or any podcast app of your choice.
Champions Corner: Sofia Kenin proves them wrong at the Australian Open. https://t.co/tqKsp422xO— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 2, 2020
Kenin's parents emigrated to the United States in 1987 and returned to Moscow, Russia in 1998 for Sofia's birth, to be around family support, and returned to Florida with an infant Sofia. Kenin's father, Alex, noticed early that his daughter eschewed dolls in favor of balls, and exhibited preternatural hand-eye coordination.
Often overlooked due to her short stature, Kenin's defining quality quickly became her fighting spirit. She wears her heart on her sleeve and her emotions can boil over and threaten to overwhelm her, but Kenin has learned to channel it all positively. Her breakout 2019 season included winning three WTA titles (Hobart, Mallorca, Guangzhou), tallying wins over No.1 Barty and No.1 Naomi Osaka in consecutive weeks, and making her first Slam Round of 16 at Roland Garros, where she defeated Serena Williams in the third round. After qualifying as an alternate at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, Kenin was voted the 2019 WTA Most Improved Player.
Kenin's white-knuckle competitiveness was on full display in the third set of the final against Muguruza. Down 0-40 at 2-2, the young American steeled herself to strike five consecutive winners - four of which came in 10+ shot rallies - to hold serve and buoy herself towards victory.
"She pulled out something unbelievable," Alex Kenin told reporters after the match. "I just spoke with [ESPN commentator] Chris Fowler and he doesn't remember anyone, even Federer, doing something like that, like being [0-40 down] and hitting five winners. That goes to history."
"She hates to lose. It's just not an option. So she just refuses to do that. She came up with the goods, which is unbelievable.
"For me, she came up with unbelievable stuff. She fought so hard. Muguruza is much bigger, much more powerful, she's playing great tennis right now, but Sofia refuses to lose."
Read Sofia's take on the final, how she was inspired by Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu's success, and why her shopping plan sounds a lot like her strategy to battle for tour supremacy.
WTA Insider: Sofia, it's been just a few hours since match point and from what I can tell, you're still on cloud nine.
Kenin: Yes, I'm on cloud nine. I still can't believe what just happened. This is just so surreal. My dreams came true and it's just super exciting. And it's such an honor just to be where I am right now.
WTA Insider: It's one thing to play the match of your life, it's another thing to play the game of your life. The game at 2-2 in the third set, where you hit five straight winners to come back from 0-40 down is going to be a game people will remember you by. It will be your calling card. You looked so calm during that game. What was going on in your mind?
Kenin: I mean, I feel like I had to calm down. I feel like I got a little bit overanxious. At 2-all I didn't start off so great. I knew I needed to just somehow relax and just play better. I really tried to hide my emotions, but then at 3-2, I tossed the ball.
A lot of things just went my way. And yeah, I was just very emotional, but I tried to somehow calm down and not let that get the better of me.
WTA Insider: There's a trope in tennis, that players who are too outwardly emotional will struggle to win consistently. It's not always true. Some players need to get the emotions out. How have you dealt with that over your career, of using your emotions positively?
Kenin: Of course, emotionally, it was really difficult for me. I had to let a lot of stuff out. I feel like at that position, that stage, anyone's going to be a bit emotional. But in the past it hasn't helped me. I still need to somehow improve on that and not do that. But it's understandable.
It's just a lot of emotions, a lot on the line. It's the finals and I really wanted to win it. I was going with the attitude of I'm going to take this title and you're not going to take this from me.
Sofia Kenin will rise to a career-high No.7 after her @AustralianOpen triumph, making her the highest-ranked American woman.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 1, 2020
Kenin is the youngest American to make her Top 10 debut since Serena Williams in 1999. #AusOpen #WTA pic.twitter.com/eQRDVZlb0H
WTA Insider: After holding to 5-2 in the third set, how did you keep it out of your mind that you're one game away from your first Grand Slam title?
Kenin: No, it got there, I just try to hide it. Thank God I didn't cry at 5-2. I literally cried a few times in the second set. I just felt a little bit emotional. But yeah, the 4-2 game I started off really great, 40-0. She just started playing some great tennis, you know, 40-30. I was looking at my dad and I was so mad at him (laughs). I think he's fine with that. But I was getting really mad. Luckily, I was able to have a good serve. I served to the forehand and she missed.
Then I sat down, tried not to cry in front of the world, but inside I was like, oh, my God, am I about to win? And yes, she obviously started playing really well that game and it was a close game. But luckily she double-faulted. The emotion said it all. I was just so speechless and just couldn't believe what happened.
WTA Insider: When you cry on court, which isn't often, what triggers that? What is the overwhelming emotion in those moments?
Kenin: All these past two weeks, I've been crying every day before my match. It's helped. It's not like I did it on purpose. It just came instantly. As each match went I felt I was getting deeper into the tournament and I really wanted to win and I was telling my dad, OK, this is the match. You've got to help me.
But today was obviously the most important one. And honestly, I was like Dad, this is the most important match. He was like, no it was just any other match. I'm like, no, it's the final of a Grand Slam. It's a little bit different. He was trying to hide it. I'm sure he was really nervous for me. I'm sure he's proud of me and super excited for me.
WTA Insider: You won Hobart 12 months ago. It started even before that at the Fed Cup final, where you played an incredible tie but were left heartbroken. It seemed your motivation over time was the need to win matches in order to earn recognition. It's tough in American tennis because there are so many great players. How did you use that as a motivational tool?
Kenin: It's just surreal. It's incredible. I feel like after the Fed Cup, it was such an honor just to be a part of it. I was super excited when Kathy Rinaldi (US Fed Cup Captain) called. Of course, it was heartbreaking and obviously next year it was also a few heartbreaking matches. But I tried to use that to motivate me and just to fight.
When I saw Naomi win, Bianca win a Grand Slam, I was super excited. That young age and winning a Slam, I mean, super exciting. You get so much attention.
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 there. And it will forever be there. So it's just incredible.
WTA Insider: When you visualized what it would look like to win the Australian Open, what did you see?
Kenin: It looked like this, but obviously it's way different now than visualizing in my room. But seriously, I haven't visualized in all my life. It just happened before coming to Australia for Brisbane. I was visualizing each round, how it would be, what emotions I would feel after each match.
It's so crazy. But it literally happened. I was visualizing this and it came true. It was just super exciting. Some people asked me if I did that because of Bianca. I was just sitting and just decided to visualize and...hallelujah!
WTA Insider: How do you plan to celebrate but also keep things grounded as you move ahead?
Kenin: I mean, all of this is just super exciting. And everyone back home is just super proud of me. I cannot wait to come back home and give everyone the biggest hug and tell them, you know what, all the hard work we've done, we did it.
Of course, it's gonna be pretty emotional for me to leave. It's been a great past two weeks. I love Melbourne. I love coming back here.
Moving forward, I'm just gonna use this use all the matches. I've had all the confidence and just try and do the best I can for the upcoming tournaments and the rest of the year.
WTA Insider: In Brisbane you told me your goals for 2020 were to qualify for the Olympics and to qualify for the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen. On Monday you will be No.1 on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, the youngest American since Serena in 1999 to make her Top 10 debut, and the top-ranked American ahead of Serena. You're checking off your goals very early in the season. What else is on your mind for this year?
Kenin: I mean, Tokyo and Shenzhen, but I just want to take each tournament, use all the great experience I've had, all the confidence and just try to build up on that and just keep improving.
First, we got to win against Latvia, so I've got Fed Cup. I can't wait to go back there and compete and hopefully get the win for us. For the upcoming tournaments, just do the best. And of course, I would love to win more Slams, but right now I'm just going to enjoy this and sink it all in.
WTA Insider: You and your father talk a lot about the American Dream, having moved to the United States from Russia to give you an opportunity for this day to happen. What does the American Dream mean to you?
Kenin: I mean, all of this. Winning a Grand Slam. I've always wanted to, I wanted to be a name on the trophy with those great champions and I'm forever gonna be on it. It was just super exciting. All the hard work I've done is really paying off.
And yeah, I've been overlooked. But you know what? I proved them all wrong. And this is just incredible. I did this for myself and for my family. Sharing this with them is everything to me.
WTA Insider: So I hear you're going to Cartier tomorrow. I have a feeling they'll be very happy to see you walk through the door.
Kenin: Yes, I'll tell them, listen, you open up this door, get everyone out (laughs). I'm all in!