When Kenin halted Serena Williams at Roland Garros last year, fist-pumping and roaring away at everyone and everything, she was heralded as a bubbly hopeful to keep an eye on, especially after then losing to Ashleigh Barty on the way to her own maiden Slam.
The Russian-born American even managed to get a little bit of an outing at the WTA Finals as the horrendously gluey court saw injuries and struggles, and as an alternate, even got some court time amongst the year’s best.
Her self-belief has been evident, certainly since she beat Williams and she won her first three titles last year.
While there were initial nerves from both in the semi-final, Kenin was fearless when it mattered against an usually tight Barty, and is right now where she needs to be, and is the youngest Australian Open finalist since Ana Ivanovic (in 2008).
Casting our minds back to last year’s Roland Garros, there was a spell of Muguruza’s play that gave hope she was on the way back – but the tail end of that year, from her fourth round loss against Sloane Stephens, she would only win one match for the rest of the season, ironically losing her last match of 2019 to Kenin.
Now reunited with Conchita Martinez, who was at her side when Muguruza coasted to her Wimbledon win in 2017, we see a return to that same relentless attack and defence, that really helped unstick Simona Halep in the semi-final.
It was a tough battle from the start, with the pair playing cat and mouse, but some of the passages of play at the net showed just how difficult it is to get past Muguruza when she is playing her best.
Muguruza’s Slam experiences have been, at best, a bit of a roller-coaster. She beat Williams with the most delightful lob but as the title defence loomed the pressure really started to take its toll. Then she went and won Wimbledon! Muguruza also knows what it is like to lose a Slam, losing Wimbledon to Williams but capturing the hearts of many along the way as she started to make her impact known on the biggest stages.
Yes there will be nerves – it has been a long while since Muguruza was part of the Slam champion conversations, but she looks ready.
Two words – Conchita Martinez
Martinez worked wonders with her at Wimbledon and already we see a calmer, focussed Muguruza and what has impressed me the most is that her hard doesn’t drop if results are not going her way. She came on board to help during a Sam Sumyk absence and the effect was evident, and was seen as a very popular move amongst fans and pundits alike.
Reunited again, and also the different dynamic of a female voice is showing the strength of its hand. Muguruza has shown her fighting spirit again where once she would hit the panic button without any kind of courage in her convictions
Confidence as the underdog
One thing that resonated during the Roland Garros winning year, was that Muguruza truly felt the pressure of being the hunted and it really started to grind her down. Coming in unseeded, she will have been still seen as someone very dangerous to have in your draw – just ask the seeds she put out.
She can consider herself the underdog following that poor end to the year – but in a new decade would you want to back against her? I would suggest not.
Alessandro Mastoluca: Three reasons why Sofia Kenin be the newest Slam winner on the block
With her second career win over Barty, having defeated Naomi Osaka last year, Kenin became the 13th player and the fifth American since 1982 to score three or more victories over a reigning World No.1 before their 22nd birthday.
The American is the youngest finalist here since her idol Maria Sharapova in 2008. Born in Moscow, she trained in Florida with Rick Macci and then with the renowned coach Nick Bollettieri. As a child, she hit with ATP and WTA professional tennis players including Anna Kournikova who’s said to have discovered her talent.
The WTA has also posted a video of a backstage tour Kim Clijsters gave her in 2005 in Indian Wells. Those stars saw her precocious hand-eye coordination that could be the main added value in her bid to claim her first major title.
No retreat, no surrender
Tactically, Kenin has no complex strategy. In the past, she always considered her fighting spirit as her main quality. Since 2019, however, her overall level quickly and impressively began to rise. The tiny player who used to extend the rallies, to upset the stronger opponents with angled strokes and drop-shots evolved into an essential hitter and runner.
Kenin plays an attack-minded, direct game without any fear when she face more powerful players. Last year, to give an idea, she beat Williams at Roland Garros delivering more winners than the 23-time Grand Slam champion, aces excluded.
She can dictate play with her forehand, accepting also to take some more risks to seal the point. In the final, she could use the pace of Muguruza’s balls to her own advantage to control the point and move the Spaniard, who will need to be extremely focused and accurate to hit clean baseline shots against a younger, hungrier opponent not supposed to crack under pressure.
Pressure is a privilege
Kenin has already showed to be seemingly unaffected by pressure throughout the tournament. Like the fellow American Danielle Collins, she brings a mix of will and ambition whenever she comes on court. She created the image of a tough player, ready enough to take what’s hers, apparently free of perceptible signs of insecurity.
The maiden Grand Slam will evidently test that image bringing her to the limits. Kenin, however, knows she has won the only previous meeting, a few months ago on a hard-court. She can rely on a very effective serve, as she held it 86% of the time during the tournament. Should she manage not to crumble against the Spaniard, who won 47% of return games in Melbourne, she can create the great upset of the tournament.
The Women’s Singles final takes place on Saturday at 7:30pm (8:30am GMT).
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