Tearful Sofia Kenin crumbles under pressure of title defence

Australian Open title defence ended by Estonian veteran Kaia Kanepi in second round

United States’ Sofia Kenin leaves the court following her second round loss to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi during at the Australian Open. Photograph: AP

United States’ Sofia Kenin leaves the court following her second round loss to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi during at the Australian Open. Photograph: AP

 

An hour after her Australian Open title defence crumbled with a 6-3 6-2 second round defeat to Kaia Kanepi, Sofia Kenin arrived in the press room with reddened eyes. Although she had already been crying, she admirably answered each question as well as she could: she explained that her opponent had played well but she was unable to execute her own shots. She concluded that she simply could not handle the pressure.

It was when she was asked to explain exactly where the pressure came from that Kenin’s composure waned: “I feel like everyone was always asking me, ‘Would you want to? Do you see yourself getting [to Melbourne] and winning again?’ Obviously I said yes. Yeah, I mean, with the way I’m playing, no’” She began to cry.

Despite Kanepi being 35-years-old, wearing cheap attire, no logo and finishing last season ranked 91 places below her opponent, there was little shock at the result. Kenin was downed by one of the most brutal, heavy ball strikers on the tour. The Estonian’s ability has taken her as high as 15th in the rankings and there was a time when it seemed that she had everything in her hands to be a perennial top 20 player.

Instead, Kanepi has become the resident grand slam upset specialist in women’s tennis. She is the name that every seeded player dreads and one of the few players to consistently make true on her ability to pull off an upset. Her win against Kenin marks her eighth grand slam win against a top 10 player and she has compiled a winning 7-6 record against them since June 2010, with victories over Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic. Her top 10 record is 5-29 at regular WTA events. Such was her confidence against Kenin, she closed the match with three aces.

The rise of Kenin over the past 13 months has happened precisely because of her ability to handle pressure in different contexts. Not only did she break through to win a surprise maiden slam title, but even after a pandemic disrupted the world and the tennis season was scuppered for five months, she returned to reach the Roland Garros final on her weakest surface.

At its heart, there are few spectacular things about her game. She is a strong athlete with a pearl of a backhand, consistent depth and a resolve to never offer her opponents the same type of ball twice. What has separated her young career from players of similar styles is her ability to elevate her game in acute pressure moments within matches. When Garbiñe Muguruza was prowling on her serve at 2-2 in the third set of their Australian Open final last year, Kenin stepped in and produced an all-time great service game by striking five winners from 0-40 down. She did not lose another game.

Kenin’s departure from the Australian Open underlines the varying types of pressure in tennis and the necessity of dealing with it all. Throughout her period at the top, Kenin has been able to fly under the radar, avoiding so much of the attention focused on other young players like Coco Gauff and Amanda Anisimova. It has often been described negatively, as an error that needs to be corrected with more media attention and interest to a worthy talent. Kenin has said that she uses her relative lack of interest and endorsements as motivation to improve.

However, not being in the spotlight has allowed Kenin the opportunity to develop her game and make early mistakes in peace. The demands and distractions that come with being a top player are always intense and the best players find a way to block out the noise and zone in on their ultimate goals. How Kenin handles it in the future will determine how long she remains at the top.

Meanwhile, the world No 1 Ashleigh Barty moved into the third round with a 6-1 7-6(7) win over countrywoman Daria Gavrilova and fifth seed Elina Svitolina defeated Coco Gauff 6-4 6-3. Heather Watson was unable to advance to the third round, falling in three sets to 21st seed Anett Kontaveit. – Guardian

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