INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Grand Slam champions are and always have been a relatively rare commodity. Sofia Kenin won the 2020 Australian Open -- before COVID-19 drastically changed the world -- and she’s one of only eight different women with major singles titles since.
Two of them met Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open, a matchup marked by the intriguing contrast in their games. Elena Rybakina is a heavy hitter, an ace machine, while Sofia Kenin kills opponents softly with a variety of acute angles and a usually dependable backhand.
Power prevailed in the pivotal moments as the No.10-seeded Rybakina handled Kenin by the thinnest of margins, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), to advance to Monday’s third round, where No.21 Paula Badosa awaits.
“I was really happy I won in two sets,” Rybakina said in her on-court interview. “The conditions were difficult to day; it’s very windy. She played really well in some moments. It went my way and I’m really happy.
“The big goal is to play really well in these really big tournaments here, for example, and the Grand Slams, of course. The goals are high, so I need to work a lot.”
Kenin is ranked No.170, but received a wild card into the event. Her ankle injury, which contributed to a difficult 2022 season, is no longer a factor. She reached the semifinals at Hobart earlier this year. She looked good in her opener with a 6-4, 6-1 win over another major champion, Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open winner.
Kenin was looking for her first Top 10 win -- since defeating No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals of her run in Melbourne. Ironically, her first loss after capturing that title was in Dubai to Rybakina, then an unseeded, little-known player, who would go on to make the final.
Kazakhstan’s Rybakina is the reigning Wimbledon champion. She backed that up with a terrific Australian Open performance in January, where she lost in the final to Aryna Sabalenka. She’s now a sporty 11-4 for the season.
The match was running along smoothly on serve, when Kenin’s backhand deserted her in the eighth game. Four successive backhands soared long and Rybakina, capitalizing on the first break opportunity of the match, took a 5-3 lead. Kenin came back immediately with her own break of serve, converting her third break point of the game.
Rybakina took the taut tiebreaker following another errant backhand from Kenin.
Inevitably, the second set wound down to another extra session. In the end, Rybakina earned a match point with a huge serve followed by a backhand winner. She converted it when Kenin double-faulted.