In her first public appearance in more than four months -- after spending half that time without seriously swinging a racquet -- Sofia Kenin seemed to be back to being herself.
It was only an exhibition last week at the Atlanta Open against the ascendant, resplendent Coco Gauff. And while Kenin would lose 6-1, 6-2, there were signs that she is, once again, fully engaged. All in for what was essentially a meaningless match. The 23-year-old American scowled after missing easy shots, muttered under her breath when yet another Gauff winner found the open court.
“It was obviously nice to be out there competing, but I just feel like emotions kind of got me. I felt like a bit overwhelmed,” Kenin said Sunday from Washington D.C., where she’s playing in this week’s Citi Open. “Obviously, I was excited. I’m finally getting back in the groove.”
Oh, and what a groove it was.
She was the WTA’s Most Improved player in 2019, winning three titles. And then in 2020 -- a year ravaged by COVID-19 and the global pandemic -- Kenin was the WTA’s Player of the Year. Of the three major tournaments played that year, she was the only woman to reach two finals, winning the pre-pandemic Australian Open, defeating Garbiñe Muguruza in the final. At the age of 21, she was the youngest American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Serena Williams in 1999.
And then Kenin advanced to the final of the fall edition of Roland Garros before losing to Iga Swiatek. Looking for some context? There have been 12 different one-time Grand Slam finalists going back to Kenin’s Australian breakthrough. Only four players have been to two: former World No.1s Ashleigh Barty, now retired, Naomi Osaka, current No.1 Swiatek and Kenin.
Her triumph in Melbourne, believe it or not, came only 30 months ago. Today, the world finds itself in a vastly different place and, in those ensuing months, so did Sofia Kenin. There was illness, injury, an eight-month separation from her coach, father Alex, and the sometimes crushing weight of expectations, both internal and external.
“I felt more pressure from the outside,” Kenin said. “I tried to do my best, but obviously some nerves got the better of me. We should expect that, but I’ve been told by a few people that that’s normal coming off after a Grand Slam, a final, you have more pressure.
“I put more pressure on myself because I felt like I was expected to do it each time. That’s unrealistic unless you’re like Novak [Djokovic] or like Rafa [Nadal]. Serena [Williams], too.”
The 2021 season began well enough, with Kenin winning three matches in Abu Dhabi before losing to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals. There were two more wins at the Melbourne 500, but she fell in the second round of the Australian Open to Kaia Kanepi. Days later, Kenin’s appendix was removed. In March, she announced her father would no longer be her coach.
“I had great success with my dad, and I felt like now was the time for me to do what I wanted to do myself in terms of my tennis, my career,” she wrote at the time. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. I think for now I just need some time for myself, figure things, grow as a person and then, we’ll just see what’s gonna happen down the road.”
Dogged by an ingrown toenail at the time, Kenin would lose six of seven matches before finding her form in Paris, where she reached the Round of 16, losing again to Sakkari. She played her last match of the year at Wimbledon, falling in the second round. Kenin said last November that her father was back as coach.
“There were a lot of minor injuries,” Kenin said, “and I had to take care of it. I just figured, let’s get everything cleared, let’s start it again in 2022 at Australia. Then, unfortunately, I had another injury.”
This one, after starting the year by dropping six of eight matches, was a more serious ankle injury. She wore a splint for three weeks, then a protective boot for another three weeks. She was off the court longer than the year before, coming back with some light movement work while wearing an ankle brace. For someone who’s always been in a hurry, these were excruciating weeks; patience was a mandatory part of the process.
Kenin is ranked No.416 and accepted a wild card into the D.C. event. Her first-round match against Camila Osorio on Tuesday will be her first official match in 146 days. She’s 2-6 for 2022 and 13-16 over the past two years.
This is not the trajectory Kenin or most followers of professional tennis would have predicted. At the age of 16, she rose to No.2 in the world junior rankings after winning the Orange Bowl. She was already No.15 among Hologic WTA Tour players when she won the Australian Open, eventually rising as high as No.4.
“I obviously believed that I could [win a major], but it takes so much work, so much effort and so many emotions,” Kenin said. “Obviously I wanted to and that was my goal, my dream. Obviously, once I achieved it, it hit me a lot. I was just in shock. I couldn’t believe what happened.”
“Oh, [Australia] feels like it was ages ago,” Kenin said.
Her hope is to play well in the North American hard-court season, beginning in Washington, then Toronto, Cincinnati and possibly Cleveland if she needs some matches going into the US Open. She’d consider a run into the second week in New York to be a success. The key, as always, is to get match-wins and build confidence. That would put her in a familiar place -- that of a major contender.
Does she truly believe she can win a second Grand Slam singles title?
“Definitely. Definitely I believe. Definitely,” Kenin said. “That’s never changed. I just need to get there. Right now everything is 100 percent. I’m doing what I can from my side. It should come.”