ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- One year ago, Sofia Kenin was a dangerous presence in any draw, and the reigning WTA Most Improved Player of the Year who was capable of claiming a victory over anyone in her path. However, she was still waiting to claim a quarterfinal appearance at a major tournament and a spot inside the Top 10.
Just twelve months later, American has notched all of those goals and then some, winning her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, reaching a second Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, rising to her current and career-high ranking of World No.4, and being named WTA Player of the Year for the 2020 season.
"It’s crazy that it’s been a year, and it feels like it was just yesterday," Kenin reflected, during her pre-tournament press conference at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open, where she awaits the start of the 2021 WTA season as the event's No.1 seed.
"I definitely feel like I’m a top player, and I’ve proven it," said Kenin, who will open against a qualifier in the first round of this week's event at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre.
"Overall confidence has, of course, gone up," said the the 22-year-old. "I had a really good last year, tennis-wise, so I’m just going to try to keep the momentum going."
To maintain that momentum, Kenin put fitness at the top her list for her pre-season training going into the 2021 events, as her Australian Open title defense quickly approaches. "For sure, fitness was definitely number one for me," said the American.
Working my way into 2021 🥂 🎆 pic.twitter.com/BeKzJqT0M6— Sofia Kenin (@SofiaKenin) December 31, 2020
"I had a lot of physical points [in my matches], so fitness was number one, and just trying to keep my game strong and try to improve it," Kenin continued. "We’re just going to see how it’s gonna go."
"Overall, it was just courts, home, courts, home, getting ready for 2021," said Kenin, although she did take time out to enjoy a brief vacation in Turks and Caicos before her training regimen resumed. "For like five days or so, I did not play tennis, which was nice, but then I got back to the court," the American explained.
Kenin's hard work from 2019 into 2020 garnered huge dividends, maintaining a direct path of improvement in her ranking and results over the past few seasons -- a pattern she could repeat with her off-season training this time around as well.
"The year before, I had a good run to the fourth round at the French Open, so I feel like from there, things kind of clicked for me," said Kenin. "I had a not-bad China swing, I won Guangzhou, I was playing well, so I feel like that helped me for sure after playing Serena [Williams at Roland Garros], who’s my idol."
"Of course I worked hard in the pre-season the year before, and that obviously paid off," Kenin continued, reiterating that she had not cracked the Top 10 or gone past the fourth round at a major prior to her 2020 run in Melbourne. "That’s why there were a bit more emotions when I got to the fourth round, then I got further and further. So, it just meant a lot to me."
With the Australian Open looming, Kenin is hoping to get match-tough in Abu Dhabi before the trip Down Under, where she will experience her first major as the titleholder. "It’s going to be exciting," said Kenin, who will practice with 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko during the opening stages of the Australian quarantine.
"Of course, different pressure, since I’m the defending champion, but I’m just going to try to get that out of my head and just take one match at a time," Kenin added. "Hopefully I’ll have a good run there."
"I just know from seeing it, opponents are going to play better against the defending champion, they’re going to not feel much pressure," the American continued. "Of course, you have to handle your own pressure, try not to get too down on yourself, and realize and know that you’re the defending champion [and] people are going to play better against you. You should try to somehow keep locked in and not get crazy emotional."
Despite the high level she set for herself at the Australian Open and Roland Garros last year, Kenin is determined to deal with and work through internal and external pressures.
"I’ve always been hard on myself," said Kenin. "I’ve gotten used to the pressure. This one [the Australian Open] is going to be a bit different out of the ones you just mentioned, since I’m the defending champion. In Paris, it’s still going to be pressure, but it’s not like how it’s going to be for Australia.
"Those two are going to be the key for me, to try to do the best I can to handle it, and try not to put extra pressure on myself of expectations and everything. But of course, I want to try to do well there, and I’m going to obviously focus on those tournaments."
Kenin can take heart knowing that she has already come through the gauntlet of a major championship with the singles titlist's trophy as her reward.
"I’m just happy with the way I handled the pressure," Kenin stated, looking back on her 2020 Australian Open run. "I told myself, ‘I’m just going to leave everything out on the court and we’ll see what’s gonna happen,’ and it happened really good for me."
Main Draw play begins on Wednesday, January 6th. For all the live scores from the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, click here.