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Sofia Kenin is Adrift

By Giri Nathan

Two years ago, Sofia Kenin, a prodigy who’d ruled the juniors, appeared to have solved the pros, too. I’m still rattled by what she did at 2–2 in the third set of the 2020 Australian Open final. Serving to Garbine Muguruza, down 0–40, she reeled off five straight winners, shots she’d later call “the best shots of her life,” apparently getting angrier and angrier after each one, and drawing strength from that very anger. She didn’t drop a game for the rest of the match. Here was this 21-year-old boasting not just elite movement and timing, but a talent for productive wrath. The game always needs a little dose of that. Over the course of 2020, Kenin established a comfortable perch at the top of the game, and seemed like she’d hang around there for a decade. She started the year with that trophy in Australia, and finished the year with the runner-up trophy at a chilly, pandemic-delayed Roland-Garros. In between, she won a title in Lyon and made the fourth round of the US Open. Coming into the 2021 season, she was the No. 4 player in the world. This week, world No. 130 Sofia Kenin was granted a wild card to Indian Wells, where she fell in the first round to world No. 61 Beatriz Haddad Maia, marking her sixth straight loss. What happened?

Way too much happened, generally speaking. Her tennis suffered amid illness and injury, family and professional drama. At the start of 2021, Kenin was dropped by her management agency, which cited “difficulties with the athlete’s environment.” (At least one part of “the athlete’s environment” might have been her forever coach, and veritable Tennis Dad, Alex Kenin.) An attempted Australian Open title defense ended in the second round to Kaia Kanepi; before leaving Melbourne, she had an appendectomy, which took her out of competition for a while. Ahead of the clay season, she split with her dad, announcing that she’d be assembling a new coaching team. After a rough patch, she finally got some traction at Roland-Garros, where she lost in the fourth round to Maria Sakkari, but did not play again until Wimbledon. There, in a second-round rout by world No. 82 Madison Brengle, Kenin hit 41 unforced errors in 45 minutes, the highest such rate since 2002, according to IBM. Soon after she picked up a foot injury. A positive Covid-19 test then kept her out of the US Open. She would shut down her season, a sparse and disappointing 11–10 campaign, to recuperate. We’re not done with the plot twists, though. At some point in the summer, she appeared to be dating her new coach, Max Wenders. In November, she announced that she’d brought back her dad to coach.

Pandemic rankings have been kind to slumping players like Kenin, who was buoyed by her breakout 2020. Even though she struggled in 2021 and hadn’t competed in six months, she arrived in Australia as the No. 12 player in the world. But after winning her first two matches of the season, she has lost six straight, and those old points have been sloughing away. Some of these first-round losses could be chalked up to difficult draws—eventual semifinalist Madison Keys at the Australian Open, and eventual winner Jelena Ostapenko in Dubai—and others have been dished out by players Kenin would have handled easily when in form. She has looked exhausted on the court, and unable to get her serve in play, and prone to bizarre errors. Now that she’s fallen outside the top 100 for the first time in four years, those draws won’t get too much kinder, either. It’s probably time for her to make a meaningful change, and soon.

Above: A downbeat Sofia Kenin in Adelaide earlier this year. (Getty)

Issue No. 18