Can Sofia Kenin reverse Serena’s dominance of younger Individuals?

PARIS — For years, less-seasoned U.S. gamers readying themselves to face Serena Williams on the massive stage have needed to hear because the public-address announcer scrolls by her checklist of accomplishments through the warm-up. Nobody may blame them if it immediately put them on the again foot.

Williams has had overwhelming success in opposition to youthful Individuals, total and particularly at Grand Slam occasions. One notable exception: her loss to Sloane Stephens within the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals.

However some qualities aren’t captured by analytics, and No. 35-ranked Sofia Kenin — who goes by Sonya — seems to be properly alongside within the self-belief she must be aggressive on an event like Saturday’s third-round French Open match in opposition to the 10th-seeded, actually peerless Williams, 17 years her senior. The match, final of the day on heart courtroom, shall be their first assembly.

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When 20-year-old Kenin peeked forward within the Roland Garros draw, she noticed she was in Williams’ quarter, then put the thought apart. She persevered by a nervous three-set first-round match in opposition to Italian qualifier Giulia Gatto-Monticone, then acquired an surprising day without work when Canada’s burgeoning expertise Bianca Andreescu withdrew to spare her injured shoulder.

“I’ve a lot respect for Serena. She’s executed a lot for tennis, for American tennis,” Kenin instructed me Friday after a hard-fought loss within the doubles draw. “I watched her a lot rising up, together with [Maria] Sharapova and different gamers, in fact. It is simply loopy, I might have by no means guessed that in just a few years I might be enjoying Serena Williams within the third spherical at Roland Garros. I might have been leaping off the sofa again then.

“Hopefully I can deal with my feelings properly tomorrow. And take a look at to not overthink it. It will be slightly bit unusual, wanting throughout the online and it is Serena there, however I’ll have to only lock in and take it as another match, and simply play.”

South Florida-based Kenin, who got here to america from Russia together with her mother and father as an toddler, could have the psychological crucible of Fed Cup crew play to fall again on.

“It is a completely different form of strain,” she mentioned Friday. “You are enjoying to your nation, to your crew, and you do not wish to allow them to down. It is clearly actually good to have this duty. It means they imagine in you.”

Speak about daunting odds: This previous November, with a younger U.S. lineup preventing to defend the crew’s Fed Cup title and down Zero-2 within the best-of-five weekend in opposition to the Czech Republic in Prague, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi opted to start out Kenin in opposition to Katerina Siniakova. Kenin had match factors within the second set however succumbed after practically 4 hours, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5. It was Kenin’s second three-set lack of the weekend.

On the postmatch information convention, seated subsequent to Kenin, Rinaldi briefly broke down in tears. “Sonya — I’ve identified her since she was 7 years previous,” Rinaldi mentioned then. “I could not be extra pleased with what she’s executed this week.”

She turned towards Kenin. “Thanks for permitting me to be part of your tennis all these years,” mentioned Rinaldi, who additionally coached Kenin on the 2014 Junior Fed Cup crew that received the championship.

Sofia Kenin grew up watching Serena Williams. On Saturday she’ll get to play Williams — for the primary time in her profession — on heart courtroom at Roland Garros with a visit to the fourth spherical on the road. Clive Mason/Getty Photos

Just a few weeks in the past in San Antonio, Kenin took on one other tense Fed Cup scenario. Rinaldi chosen her for the singles match that might clinch a U.S. berth within the 16-team World Group draw. (A loss to Australia in February compelled the playoff in opposition to Switzerland.) Stephens tried to regular Kenin by telling her the crew had her again, and would choose her up if wanted within the subsequent match. Nonetheless, when Kenin went down Zero-Three within the second set to Timea Bacsinszky, déjà vu momentarily kicked in.

“I am like, ‘Oh, my God, this can’t occur,'” Kenin instructed reporters afterward. “I don’t wish to lose. I felt like I wasn’t doing what I used to be purported to be doing, so Kathy was like, ‘Return to your recreation plan. Let’s do that and kick ass.'”

Kenin stormed again to pressure a tiebreak and took a 6-1 lead, solely to really feel her eyes fill with tears on the weight of the second. Three factors slipped away earlier than she prevailed 6-Three, 7-6 (four).

She began this season sturdy, profitable a WTA hardcourt occasion in Hobart, Australia, and reaching the finals of the hardcourt Acapulco match, defeating Victoria Azarenka and Andreescu alongside the best way.

“She’s having a very nice 12 months, clearly,” mentioned Fed Cup teammate Madison Keys, who misplaced to Kenin in Rome in mid-Could. “With the ability to play by these nerves for the primary time and eventually get that win, I feel, was actually massive for her.

“She was positively one of many ones, when she was arising in her [age] group, that everybody form of knew that she was going to do issues. I feel [Saturday] she’s going to have quite a lot of enjoyable, and I feel she does not actually again right down to strain, and she or he actually enjoys it and likes with the ability to play up.”

Williams, in the meantime, opened slowly in Paris and needed to scramble again from a set right down to win her first match in opposition to Vitalia Diatchenko, then dispatched Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara in additional routine trend — though nothing is coming notably simple for her this season.

“I’ve had a troublesome 12 months since I twisted my ankle in Australia,” mentioned Williams, competing in solely her fifth match of 2019. “Like, it is simply been actually robust after that. So every little thing positively feels slightly bit tougher than regular, however on the identical time, I do know that it’ll get higher.”

Williams had nothing however compliments for Kenin.

“I do know her recreation very well,” Williams mentioned. “She had a very nice run in [Hobart], and I’ve been watching her.

“She has lots to convey to the desk. She’s so younger, and she or he’s such a very good participant. I actually — yeah, I am truly wanting ahead to that match.”

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