How Sofia Kenin stunned Aryna Sabalenka in Rome

May 14, 2023

The American recorded her first Top 10 win in three years last Thursday at the WTA 1000 event

How Sofia Kenin stunned Aryna Sabalenka in Rome

You could see it early: Sofia Kenin had her walk back last Thursday in Rome.

The 24-year-old Floridian is ranked 134th right now, down 129 spots from her career high. She’s three years removed from her biggest accomplishments, an Australian Open title and a runner-up finish at Roland Garros. And today she was facing the woman who currently wears the Melbourne crown, and who is playing the best tennis of any woman in 2023, Aryna Sabalenka. Last week in Madrid, Sabalenka beat world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the final, in what may have been the WTA match of the year so far. Kenin, meanwhile, lost in the first round to 77th-ranked Maryna Zanevska 6-0, 6-3.

Despite all of that, Kenin began this match acting, and playing, like a woman with a chance. She walked with that familiar, impatient, I’ve-got-somewhere-to-be strut between points, and she celebrated her service the way she did in her glory days-by slamming the ball into the ground in irrational frustration. The feisty demeanor translated to her play. From the start, the 5-foot-7 American wasn’t overwhelmed or intimidated by the 6-foot-0 Sabalenka’s typically overwhelming power.

Instead, Kenin used that pace against her. She absorbed it until she had an angle to work with, and then she redirected the ball into the open corner, catching Sabalenka out of position on the other side of the court.

Kenin held Sabalenka at bay with her serve, and neutralized rallies with her return. She went up an early break, and even when Sabalenka made her expected surge at the end of the set, Kenin held steady, reached a tiebreaker, and played error-free tennis to lead 6-2. That’s when the nerves kicked in. She made two wild, anxious errors, and for a second it looked as if she might give away the set. But Sabalenka helped her cause immensely at 6-4 by drilling an easy forehand into the net.

From there, some of the weariness that Sabalenka must have been feeling after her efforts in Madrid caught up with her. From 2-2, she lost the last four games; the pinpoint placement that had earned her a 29-4 record this year was gone, as Kenin kept absorbing, kept redirecting, and kept finding the open corners. Perhaps an even bigger surprise than her 7-6 (4), 6-2 win was the fact that Kenin finished with more winners than Sabalenka, 23 to 22.

Kenin has been putting in the weekly work this season, and has had a few mildly promising results-a semi in Hobart, third rounds in Miami and Charleston. She barely survived her first-round match in Rome against Cristina Bucsa, 7-5 in the third set. But she played some of her best tennis on bigger stages in the past, and she did in Campo Centrale today, to earn the major breakthrough she has been looking for. This is her first win over a Top 10 opponent in three years.

“I’m super-proud of myself,” Kenin said. “I had to play my best tennis. I felt like I served well, returned well, and yeah, that’s why I won.”

The fast strut, the smart shots, the no-nonsense explanation afterward: The old Kenin, the sneaky-good Kenin, was back in full. –

How Sofia Kenin stunned Aryna Sabalenka in Rome