This article first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. You can read the full digital edition by clicking here.
Over the last couple of years, we have seen the new generation of stars in women’s tennis succeed on the game’s ultimate stage and win Grand Slams, including Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu.
And now we have one more name to add to that list: Sofia “Sonya” Kenin.
The 22-year-old Moscow-born Kenin hoisted her maiden Grand Slam title at the beginning of this year, winning the Australian Open by coming back to defeat Spain’s Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
“When I saw Naomi win, Bianca win a Grand Slam, I was super excited. That young age and winning a Slam, I mean, super exciting. You get so much attention,” Kenin told WTA Insider following her victory. “I remember I was just like, ‘you know what? What if it would be me? How incredible would that be?’ I’m just super happy and it’s an honor just to be on that beautiful trophy with so many great champions there. And it will forever be there. So it’s just incredible.”
That envisioning has been a part of Kenin’s DNA since she was young. By now, most people have seen the videos of her as a little girl talking about returning Andy Roddick’s serve, and her getting a tour of a WTA tournament from Kim Clijsters in 2005.
From the beginning, Kenin’s parents put in the necessary sacrifices in order to give Kenin a platform to succeed. Her parents, Alexander and Lena, had moved to the United States briefly, before returning to Russia for Sofia’s birth so that her extended family could assist in raising her.
A few years later they would move back to the United States, where Kenin began playing tennis at the age of five and immediately showed signs of promise, most notably working with famed tennis coach Rick Macci at his academy in Florida. From the beginning, Macci recognized there was something special about Kenin.
“She came to me at five-years-old and the very first lesson I gave her, her ability to focus and just the way she was locked in mentally already was really startling,” said Macci. “For most players, that’s the last piece of the puzzle, so that was the first thing that jumped out to me. Even though the racket was almost as big as her, I had her take the ball right off the bounce and she did it so easily, it was innate timing. You can teach people timing, but it can be hard to take in.
So right after that I’m going, ‘what is this?’ Mentally, there is a focus that I have never seen in a child this young and her hand-eye coordination just to take the ball right off the bounce. I said, ‘this girl is the scariest little creature I’ve ever seen’. I knew it straight away, and then as time went on I said she’d be top 10 in the world by age 20 and win many Grand Slams. I was a year off, but I think the age-eligibility rule that held her back a little bit.”
In addition to the unparalleled natural ability she had, Macci recalls Kenin having a relentless drive to play and compete.
“When she started competing, even at age seven, her thirst for competition was just so uncanny. She was competitive and she would say, ‘I never lost, I just ran out of time’”, he said. “Every time she lost, and I had her play boys a lot even though she was a little pip-squeak, the next day or that afternoon she’d want to play them again. It was like a mosquito that wouldn’t leave me alone; but you want that, you want people to feel pain and want to come back for more. To already have that inside of you, to be all about the competition that is how you handle pressure better, and that has been in there since five-years-old, so this doesn’t surprise me at all.”
From the onset, Kenin had a desire to win and a drive to be great that you simply can’t teach, and that was evident from an early age for the young phenom. And coupled with that desire to win was an unrelenting toughness, something her father said was a result of her upbringing.
“I think it gave her some toughness. I don’t think she realized all the sacrifices we had to go through but she knows about them and when we got to this country. It was very, very, very tough,” said Alex Kenin. “I had to work at night, and go to school in the morning. Without speaking English, just driving in New York was tough. It’s amazing the things you do when you need to survive. She knows about them, but thank God she didn’t have to experience them.”
It’s a natural instinct for parents to do whatever it takes to provide the best possible life for their children, and often times they try to shield their child from the necessary stress and struggles in order to do so. But Kenin is well-aware of the immense sacrifices that her parents made for her, and so from the very beginning she was determined to succeed. And that is why there is no one who is harder on Kenin then herself. This is evident when you watch her play; she is a firey player who is not shy about leaving all of her emotions and energy out on the court.
For a two-week stretch in late January, Kenin channeled all of that into dominating tennis in Australia with an unwavering determination to be the last player standing.
“I mean, all of this,” she said when WTA Insider asked her what the “American Dream” means to her. “Winning a Grand Slam, I’ve always wanted to. I wanted to be a name on the trophy with those great champions and I’m forever going to be on it. It was just super exciting.”
And Kenin still carries a chip on her shoulder, something that probably won’t be removed any time soon.
“All the hard work I’ve done is really paying off,” she said. “And yeah, I’ve been overlooked. But you know what? I proved them all wrong. And this is just incredible. I did this for myself and for my family. Sharing this with them is everything to me.”
Despite being born in Moscow and raised in Florida, it’s safe to say that Melbourne has rented out a permanent spot in Kenin’s heart.
“I’m on cloud nine. I still can’t believe what just happened,” she said. “This is just so surreal. My dreams came true and it’s just super exciting…It’s going to be pretty emotional for me to leave. It’s been a great past two weeks. I love Melbourne. I love coming back here.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org