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Maria Sharapova ceased to be a serious contender for trophies in 2016 – the year she tested positive for Meldonium at this very tournament. Yet her legacy was palpable on Saturday on Rod Laver Arena, as a young American of Russian descent powered to the Australian Open title.
At 21, Sofia Kenin is four years older than Sharapova was, when she famously ambushed Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2004. But you could feel history echoing down the decades as Kenin put her hands to her face and then rushed to celebrate with her father and coach Alexander.
She might even have recalled the scenes above Centre Court – where Yuri Sharapov once jumped and jigged with uncontrollable pleasure – at the back of her mind.
“She won a grand slam at 17, Maria, which I remember watching on TV,” said Kenin, who would have been only five at the time. “I saw what it's like.
“Yeah, I feel like that definitely helped me. I have part of Russian stuff inside me, the fight and fierce[ness] that I have. Trying just to be confident, do what I do best. And thank you to my parents for giving me the American dream.”
Kenin never plays without her visor, which she pulls down low over her eyes to shut out everything but the ball. The impression is of a woman wearing blinkers, because she stays locked onto her target more consistently than any of her rivals.
Her weight of shot is relatively low by modern standards, so that she resembles a grinder like Caroline Wozniacki instead of a power-merchant like Saturday’s opponent Garbine Muguruza. Yet her real weapon is her relentlessness. “People on tour know now that I won’t give up,” she told the New York Times this week. “If you want to beat me, you have to really beat me. You have to finish it.”
This mindset is rarer on the tour than you might think, but Kenin never gives a single freebie. Plus, in the words of her childhood coach Rick Macci, “Her timing of the ball is better than anyone I ever taught.” This from a man who previously worked with the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati and Sharapova herself.
Admittedly, Kenin tends not to blow opponents off the court. But when the big points arrive, she grows in stature, adding an extra few inches onto her compact 5ft 7in frame.
In her semi-final against world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, she faced two set points in each set, and saved them all with a perfect balance of aggression and control.
On Saturday, the same pattern was even more evident when she went 0-40 down at 2-2 in the deciding set. Here was the wave that Muguruza had been waiting to surf.
But Kenin switched on her sniper sights and found winner after winner. She followed two crackerjack backhands up the line with an equally laser-like forehand, then smashed an ace, and finished the job with a forehand pass. Marching back to her seat for the changeover, she pulled out her spare ball and tossed it furiously over her head. Nobody reacts so angrily to success.
“I knew I needed to come up with my best shots,” said Kenin later. “And that was the five best shots of my life. After that, I was on fire. I was ready to take the beautiful trophy.”
Muguruza, meanwhile, entered a terminal decline. She had already asked the trainer to manipulate her hips and lower back at the end of the second set, and later admitted that “I did feel a lack of energy after so many matches”. As the pressure mounted, she lost her service rhythm completely, and wound up donating the match with three double-faults in the final game.
Muguruza looked hollow-eyed at the presentation ceremony, and was combative in the interview room afterwards, especially when asked whether her runner-up finish means that she is over last year’s slump.
“Do I feel like I’m back?” she said. “Hmm, okay. I was on the tour, guys. I didn't disappear. I was there. Not reaching final rounds, for sure.” In fact, Muguruza won just a single match over her last six tournaments of 2019 – a nearly barren run that stretched all the way back to early June.
“The media has been tough on me, I have to say,” she added. “Today people will say very good things about me, and the next week bad things if you lose. I kind of found myself less excited with how things work.”
Entropy continues to reign in women’s tennis, where there is only one reliable rule: the person who wins the title is likely to be playing without a heavy burden of expectation. You could have found half-a-dozen American women in this draw who came in with more fanfare than Kenin, even if she was the 14th seed.
But by the end of the fortnight, Kenin had established herself as the eighth first-time champion in the last 12 majors. And the highest-ranked American, at No 7 in the world, which carried her ahead of Serena Williams. “I’m just like on cloud nine,” said the most unexpected champion since Jelena Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open.
Kenin steps up to the stage
A big moment for the 21-year-old, she accepts the trophy from Lindsay Davenport, lifts it in the air before placing it down and heading over to the mic.
Muguruza accepts her runners-up prize
The Spaniard speaks, holding back tears too. She's afforded a second or two from the crowd as she gathers her thoughts.
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tennis/2020 ... inal-live/
Sofia, my little fighter
Awww, she was so cute