It has been three and a half years since Sofia Kenin put both hands to her face and teared up in Melbourne. That night, she had just won the Australian Open at 21, highlighting to the world her ferocious will to fight for every point, every shot.
When her hands came down, she was not even smiling, her concentration apparently on maintaining composure as she soaked in the moment of a lifetime.
To this day, Kenin says, reflecting back on that triumph requires a bit of a mental blockade.
“I try not to think about it too much, because I might get a bit emotional,” she said on Thursday after her biggest win in over two years. “I mean, it happened, and I definitely believe that I can get there again.”
Over the last couple of years, that possibility had seemed extremely remote for Kenin, the Moscow-born American player. But in the first week of Wimbledon, she has shown some of the skill and tenacity that once took her to the summit of women’s tennis.
On Monday, she beat 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 at the earliest stages of a campaign to claw her way back to relevance. She knows there are skeptics wondering if she can, and she said on Thursday she was motivated to prove those people wrong.
“I just had to find my way,” she said. “I have been fighting. I just hope that I can keep it going.”
To do so would mean upending 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 had known that entering the so-called quallies would ensure her advancing into the third round of the main draw, she would do it regularly.
But there was a time when she expected to receive a high seeding at every tournament she entered. After Kenin won the Australian Open in 2020 by beating Garbiñe Muguruza, her ranking rose to No. 4 in the world, and her future appeared so promising.
The ensuing three years, however, turned into a desperate struggle. Among the obstacles littering her way, Kenin suffered a grade-three ankle tear; underwent an emergency appendectomy; publicly split with her father and coach, Alexander Kenin; and contracted the coronavirus. A year ago, her ranking had plummeted to No. 426 in the world, and as recently as January it was No. 280.
Kenin reunited with her father in the autumn of 2021, eight months after she had announced on social media that she had fired him. He was in the audience on Thursday, watching closely as Kenin dismantled Wang on little Court No. 4, an outer court with a capacity of only a few hundred, in the shadow of Centre 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 had 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’m working really hard, and he’s just been there for me, and I’m really grateful for that.”
On the court, she dominated Wang, deploying a deft slice that is so effective on grass, and especially so with the taller Wang, who often had difficulty getting low enough to hit through the ball and fire back effectively. Kenin also relied on her improved serve and repeatedly tucked balls inside lines on all sides of the court, just as she had done against Gauff.
In both matches, and in the qualifying stages, she demonstrated her indisputable competitive zeal.
“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 would play with a lot of motivation.”
Her victory Thursday was only the fourth time all year that she had won two matches in a row. But she credited a loss for helping her change her fortunes 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 a driving confidence.
Rybakina had reached the Australian Open final the previous month, and Kenin used the match to measure 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 ranking and consistency. But for the first time in two years, she is back in the fight.
“I knew if I put in the work and do the right things, eventually it’s going to click,” she said, “and I’m super happy it’s clicking here.”