ROME -- Sofia Kenin has never been a patient person. Tune into her matches and you see a player who plays quickly between points, walks with deliberate and intense purpose and ends points as quickly as she can. She has never been shy about her ambitions or self-belief. 

And it all paid off two years ago when she became the youngest American since Serena Williams to win a major title. 

But after injury and a dip in form sent her tumbling out of the Top 200 last year, Kenin was forced to rethink her approach to her tennis. Sure, the pace of play and tactics remain the same, but Kenin says she's taking a more reasonable approach as she charts her way back to the Top 100. 

"Of course I expect a lot of myself," Kenin told WTA Insider after her upset of No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in Rome. "It's not easy being No.4 and now not ranked where I want to be. But I'm making progress."

Kenin knocks out No.2 Sabalenka in stunning second-round upset

Kenin's progress in 2023 has largely gone under the radar. She began the year ranked No.227. She made the semifinals in her second tournament of the season, in Hobart, which was her first final four since making the 2020 Roland Garros final. During the Sunshine Double, she defeated Sloane Stephens and narrowly lost to eventual champion Elena Rybakina in the second round. She followed that up with two good wins in Miami before losing to Bianca Andreescu. 

"Before Madrid, I played well," Kenin said. "We had some great practices and then I played bad. Here I ended up not having the best practices and I played well. I would rather keep it like that."

Rome: Kenin's top shots in second-round shocker over Sabalenka

2023 Rome

Kenin's 7-6(4), 6-2 win over Sabalenka was her best win by ranking since beating No.1 Ashleigh Barty en route to the Australian Open title in 2020. Kenin's signature backhand was firing well against the Madrid champion, but it was her ability to hold her nerve to keep Sabalenka from pounding her way into a third set that was most noticeable.

"I'm proud of myself," Kenin said. "I wasn't hot this whole year like she was, so I knew I had to do my best. I had a tough one at Indian Wells against Elena Rybakina. Two points and the first and second set could have gone my way. I was heartbroken but I got myself together."

"This does a lot for my confidence."

Kenin has tempered her ambitions. The change in mindset stems from the tough lessons learned when she returned from injury last season and struggled to win matches. 

"If you think about small goals, it's positive. If you don't see it that way, what's the point of playing?

"Last year when I came back I thought, like, I gotta get back and of course that was more pressure. Complete disaster in my game and everything. My head was completely out of it."

Kenin has a more modest goal for 2023. She hopes to finish in the Top 50 at the end of the season. The first step is to get herself back in the Top 100. Her two wins in Rome have boosted her ever closer to that goal.  

"I cannot set those unrealistic goals," she said. "Last year I was nowhere. If I played Sabalenka last year, it would have been a disaster. There was no chance. 

"Now I feel like there's a chance. Against Rybakina, I was right there. After the match, her coach said 'I told Elena that if she beats you, she'll win the whole tournament.' 

"So I feel like I'm there to play and with this win it gives me more confidence. Once I break into the Top 100, I think it will be way easier."

Kenin takes inspiration from the other comeback stories on tour. She watched as Taylor Townsend battled into the second round and was amazed when she followed it up with a three-set win over No.3 Jessica Pegula.

Every player has a different journey with different challenges, but Kenin was quick to echo Townsend's own words about work ethic and patience. 

"Like Taylor Townsend said, trust the process, trust everything that I've put in," Kenin said. "I'm doing the work, I've got talent and I have great support behind me. It's just clicking slowly."

"Overall this whole year I can't really complain much. I've had some good wins, some tough matches. I guess three matches I would say I wasn't playing well at all. Compared to last year, this is fine."