There comes a time in every top tennis player's career when they transition from challenger to champion; a top-20 ranking rises to a top five and with it, greater pressures and expectations.
For Sofia Kenin, that transition took place last season. The American had already offered glimpses of what was to come during a 2019 campaign that saw her collect three WTA titles – and climb from No 56 to No 14 in the rankings – but it was 2020 when she really bulldozed her way into the elite.
Before there was any hint that a global pandemic would soon wreak havoc, a 21-year-old Kenin began the year by clinching her maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. In doing so, she became the youngest American woman to win a singles major since Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2002.
She followed that up with her second title of the year, in Lyon, immediately before tennis went into a five-month lockdown.
Proving herself a player of all surfaces, Kenin then reached the final of the rescheduled French Open in October to finish the truncated season at No 4 in the rankings and as the highest prize money winner of the year.
No longer is Kenin part of the chasing pack. Instead, the hunter has become the hunted. Her challenge now is to build on her success from last season amid a different set of expectations.
"I definitely feel like I’m a top player, I've proven it and I definitely feel like there’s more pressure from the outside," she said. "I’m applying a bit more pressure [to myself] by trying to have good runs at tournaments and I'm being quite hard on myself at the Slams especially.
"But overall, confidence has gone up. I had a really good last year tennis-wise so I'm just going to try and keep the momentum going."
Top of Kenin's agenda is her first Grand Slam title defence in Melbourne next month. The Australian Open was pushed back by three weeks to accommodate the various measures required to safely host the tournament during the pandemic, and before heading Down Under, Kenin is taking the opportunity to get some matches under her belt by competing in the inaugural Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open.
"I think it’s good to have a tournament to practice some matches and hopefully I’ll have a few here," she said on the eve of the tournament at Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre.
"I’m excited to be here. It was kind of a last minute decision so a few people asked why I was going. I wanted to get out of the house, I guess, and get some matches in."
As the highest-ranked player in the field Kenin, who faces a qualifier in the first round, will be top seed in Abu Dhabi. It is a status she will have to get increasingly used to, not that it fazes her one bit.
"Pressure on myself has always been pretty easy to handle," the 22-year-old American said. "I’ve always been hard on myself, that’s why I hated losing in practice and would cry when I was little. That’s pressure I established, so it’s fine. I’ve just gotten used to the pressure.
"It's going to be a bit different [at the Australian Open] because I’m defending champion. Even in Paris there will be some pressure but not quite the same as Australia. Those two tournaments are going to be key for me to try and do the best I can to handle it and not place too many expectations myself, although I am determined to do well."
Anyway, even if Kenin does need a bit of guidance on how to handle the pressures of defending the Australian Open title, she can always turn to the tournament's most successful male player.
"I can talk to Novak [Djokovic] so I think that can be helpful," she said. "He gave me great advice before the final last year. We were practicing next to each other and he came up to me and was really nice. He told me some things before the final, which was special because I was crazy nervous."
Almost 12 months on, Kenin's standing within the game has increased dramatically. Now firmly established among the elite, she appears ready to take it all in her stride.