It’s been three and a half years since Sofia Kenin put both hands to her face and ripped in Melbourne. That night, she had just won the Australian Open at 21, highlighting to the world her fierce will to fight for every point, every shot.
When her hands came down, she didn’t even smile, her concentration apparently on maintaining composure as she soaked in the moment of life.
To this day, Kenin says, reflecting on that triumph requires a bit of a mental block.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much because I might get a little emotional,” she said Thursday after her biggest win in more than two years. “I mean, it happened, and I definitely believe I can get there again.”
For the past two years, that possibility seemed extremely remote for Kenin, the Moscow-born American player. But in the first week of Wimbledon, she showed some of the skill and tenacity that once took her to the top of women’s tennis.
On Monday, she defeated Coco Gauff in the first round. On Thursday, she defeated Xinyu Wang, 6-4, 6-3, to plow into the third round of a major tournament for the first time since she reached the fourth round of the 2021 French Open.
She is still in the earliest stages of a campaign to claw her way back to relevance. She knows there are skeptics who question whether she can, and she said Thursday she’s motivated to prove those people wrong.
“I just had to find my way,” she said. “I fought. I just hope I can keep it going.”
Doing so would mean upsetting Elina Svitolina, the 76th-ranked player on tour, in the third round on Friday.
Kenin arrived at Wimbledon ranked 128th in the world and had to win three matches in the qualifying rounds just to get into the main draw. That might be beneath some former Grand Slam tournament champions, but Kenin approached the task with determination, humility and a bit of humor, saying that if she knew going in the so-called qualities would ensure she advanced into the third round of the major . to draw, she would do it regularly.
But there was a time when she expected to get a high ranking at every tournament she entered. After Kenin won the 2020 Australian Open by beating Garbiñe Muguruza, her ranking rose to No. 4 in the world, and her future looked so promising.
The next three years, however, became a desperate struggle. Among the obstacles littering her path, Kenin suffered a third-degree ankle sprain; underwent an emergency appendicectomy; publicly split with her father and trainer, Alexander Kenin; and contracted the coronavirus. A year ago, her ranking fell to No. 426 in the world, and as recently as January it was No. 280.
Kenin was reunited with her father in the fall of 2021, eight months after she announced on social media that she had fired him. He was in the audience Thursday, watching intently as Kenin dismantled Wang on small Court No. 4, an outdoor court with a capacity of only a few hundred, in the shadow of Center Court. Kenin has worked with several coaches in recent years, but her father is back as part of the team, a constant presence again, and Kenin said he has been part of her recent success.
“I definitely think things are clicking,” she said, “Obviously, with all the practices and just doing everything right. I work really hard, and he’s just been there for me, and I’m really thankful for that.”
On the court, she dominated Wang, deploying a skillful slice that is so effective on grass, and especially so with the taller Wang, who often had difficulty getting low enough to hit the ball and shoot back effectively. Kenin also relied on her improved serve and repeatedly placed balls inside lines on all sides of the court, just as she did against Gauff.
In both matches, and in the qualifying stages, she showed her unquestionable competitive fervor.
“Obviously, she won a Grand Slam, but she’s in a tough spot in her career,” Gauff said after their match. “I knew coming in she was going to play with a lot of motivation.”
Her win Thursday was just the fourth time all year she won two matches in a row. But she credited a loss with helping her turn her fortunes around this year. At Indian Wells in March, she lost in straight sets to Elena Rybakina, who was then ranked No. 10 but is now No. 3 after winning the French Open last month. Both sets, however, went to tiebreakers, and Kenin soaked up the experience, converting it into driving confidence.
Rybakina had reached the Australian Open final the previous month, and Kenin used the match to gauge her progress and her ability to hang with the best.
“I felt like that was a little bit of a turning point for me,” she said.
The next week, she won two matches at the Miami Open before falling to Bianca Andreescu and has gone 9–6 since then, including the Wimbledon qualifying rounds.
She has a long way to go, in terms of both rank and consistency. But for the first time in two years, she is back in the fight.
“I knew that if I put in the work and do the right things, eventually it would click,” she said, “and I’m very happy it clicked here.”