Sofia Kenin silences the sceptics with her Australian Open triumph

The Russian-born American champion – backed by her devoted father and coach, Alex – insists that 'no matter what people said, we always believed and we just achieved it'

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 01: Sofia Kenin and her coach and father Alexander Kenin pose with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy in the locker room after winning her Women's Singles Final match against Garbine Muguruza of Spain on day thirteen of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on February 01, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
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For a long time, American tennis player Sofia Kenin, along with her father and coach Alex Kenin, felt like she was overlooked.

So when Alex found himself surrounded by scores of journalists in Melbourne Park on Saturday after his daughter had just been crowned Australian Open champion, his parting words were ones of gratitude.

“Thank you for your attention,” the smiling Russian said, somehow sounding earnest and sarcastic at the same time.

Following her impressive 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over two-time Major champion Garbine Muguruza in the Australian Open final, the 21-year-old Sofia spent hours fulfilling her media duties.

As she wraps up one round-table interview and finds out she still has more to go, a hungry and exhausted Sofia briefly mutters to the WTA communications manager.

One reporter pointed out that this is the attention she had been craving all along.

“I know, I know, I’m not complaining, don’t worry,” she replied with a laugh.

Alex moved to the United States in 1987. He and his wife Lena were in Moscow for Sofia’s birth to be around family there, but returned to Florida just a few months later.

His early days in the States saw him study computer science during the day, and drive around the streets of New York at night, working for a car service, receiving instructions on the radio when he could barely speak any English.

“I wanted a better future for my kids. It was a completely different country and everything was not allowed. I tried to get out for eight years. They controlled everything, and you didn’t see the world, you were stuck,” says Alex.

He played tennis recreationally, and Sofia picked up one of his racquets at the age of three, and started hitting balls with Alex in their driveway at Pembroke Pines, Florida.

“They wanted to give me the American dream,” Sofia told a small group of reporters after her triumph over Muguruza.

She showed great hand-eye coordination at such a young age, that Alex realised early on his daughter possessed a special talent.

Not everyone shared his views though, especially that Sofia was quite small in size compared to others her age. The sceptics didn’t focus on the fact that she was actually beating those other players, including the likes of Naomi Osaka and others.

“I just feel like some people didn’t believe in me, they turned me down and said some things like I wouldn’t be there, I’m too small, just a lot of different things,” says Sofia, who was voted WTA Most Improved Player of the year in 2019, after clinching three titles.

“But my dad and I never took it seriously, we knew we had a goal, I had a dream, and we achieved it.”

Alex admits it feels good to prove people wrong. Sofia tries to frame it in a different light.

“I feel like we did this for ourselves, not to prove people wrong, but it does that at the same time, which is good,” she grins. “We did this for ourselves, we put in all the hard work. No matter what people said, we always believed and we just achieved it. My dad is super excited.

“Of course it wasn’t easy, I wanted to be in the front pages, everyone wants to be there in the spotlight. But I feel like I handled it well, I did my own thing, I crawled up somewhere and now the spotlight is on me I guess, it’s good.

“I didn’t like it but it didn’t stop me from believing in myself and having a mindset of knowing what I want to do and what I want to achieve in my life.”

That determination is glaringly obvious from Sofia on court. She walks at a rapid pace between points, reacts to her own shots immediately, with near disgust, even if she won the point, just because she knows she can do better. When she fell behind 0-40 on serve at 2-2 in the final set against Muguruza, she hit five winners to hold and surge forward.

“She pulled out something unbelievable. I just spoke with [commentator] Chris Fowler, he doesn’t remember anybody, even [Roger] Federer, doing something like that. Hitting five winners… that will go down in history,” Alex said, reflecting on that game.

He was visibly emotional throughout the whole final, and says it’s “unreal” to see his daughter as a Grand Slam champion. “In a way it justifies all the suffering,” he added.

It’s barely been 24 hours but Sofia looks like she was built for the spotlight. She’s planning on enjoying it too.

When she stated at the start of the tournament that one of her goals for 2020 was to qualify for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen – she played there last year as an alternate – one of her reasons was that she “liked to be spoiled” and she saw how players are treated like royalty at the season-ending championships.

She wants to live in the fancy Upper East Side in New York and wore a Jason Grech-designed dress to her trophy photoshoot by the Yarra river on Sunday. She has her eyes on specific items at Cartier to splurge after pocketing A$4.12 million (Dh180.4m) in Melbourne.

She’s certainly earned it. Not many people can perform so fearlessly in their maiden Grand Slam final. Muguruza was contesting her fourth, yet Sofia was the one who looked in command.

The young American was nervous, and even had tears in her eyes in the first set, but she had visualised her entire Australian Open journey back when she was at home in Florida, before she event got on a plane to make the trip Down Under.

“It’s crazy. I was in my room before coming here, I was envisioning myself in Australia, after first round what I would do, second round, and everything. It’s just crazy that I just envisioned and I won,” Sofia said, sounding  a lot like another recent Grand Slam champion, Bianca Andreescu of Canada, who has spoken at length of the power she has found in visualisations.

“I obviously didn’t picture it to be like this, it’s much more different experiencing it than just sitting in my room and lying in bed and envisioning all of this. I just can’t believe it came true. That was the first time I did it, it’s crazy.

"I remember Bianca spoke of that. I just tried to do it, I didn’t really have a reason behind anything. I was just thinking, ‘Oh what if this, first round, the emotions’. Obviously it was way more than how I planned, I guess I have to envision every day now.”

Alex tries to explain how his daughter was able to bring out her best when it mattered the most, despite her lack of experience.

“She hates to lose, it’s just not an option, she just refuses to do that. She came up with all these goods, which is unbelievable. Even for me, she came up with unbelievable stuff and she fought so hard,” he says.

Both Sofia and Alex have been showered with messages of congratulations from players and coaches on tour – after all, they are a package deal. “It’s all new to me, and I’m enjoying it immensely,” Alex signs off with a smile.