When a young tennis player wins a major title, it is easy and perfectly reasonable to imagine what the future holds for that player.
Sofia Kenin, 21, won her first major championship by winning the 2020 Australian Open women’s singles final against Garbine Muguruza on Saturday night in Melbourne. As with other young players — Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open, Ashleigh Barty at Roland Garros, and Naomi Osaka at the two majors before that — first major finals aren’t the overwhelming obstacles one might be inclined to think they are.
These younger WTA players are stepping into the spotlight and handling their first major finals quite well. It all makes it tempting to dream of what these players can and will achieve. If you engage in that process of projection, great. It’s not wrong to do so.
I would only say this, however: The WTA is a place where (as I have noted many times over the past 12 months) one major’s results don’t carry to the next one. I will say right now that of the four semifinalists in Australia — Kenin, Muguruza, Barty, and Simona Halep — I would bet on only one, at most, reaching the Roland Garros semifinals.
The WTA in early 2020 is a place where the events of today have little bearing on the events of tomorrow or the next tournament. I personally feel disinclined to imagine what Sofia Kenin will do with her career.
I hasten to clarify that I am disinclined to lay out my projections for Kenin’s career not because I think she can’t achieve richly. I actually think she has a very high ceiling.
I don’t feel like projecting much about her career because the WTA is defined by a context of inconsistency — high quality finals and generally compelling tennis, yes, but inconsistency alongside those other traits.
WTA tennis is interesting and good, but to claim consistency is also part of the landscape is simply a failure to acknowledge reality.
With all of this in mind, then, the future isn’t a place I want to visit right now. WTA tennis at the majors is a realm in which the future means nothing; it’s all about seizing precious moments in the present tense.
Maybe one or more of the younger WTA stars will catch fire and become that consistent player who is almost always there in the semifinal rounds of major tournaments. Until then, however, this is a tour in which multi-major champions in the coming decade will probably be less the products of every-event dependability, and more the products of capturing 50-50 matches waiting to be won.
Sofia Kenin won a bunch of 50-50 matches to capture the Australian Open.
She lost the first set against Coco Gauff and had to fight her way back to defeat an opponent who had just taken out Naomi Osaka. That match could have gone either way.
She won two very tight sets against Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.
She saved multiple set points in two different sets against Ash Barty in the semifinals.
She lost the first set, regrouped, and then pulled off an amazing 0-40 save at 2-2 in the third to beat Muguruza.
Kenin saved 10 break points and won 5 of 6 on Muguruza’s serve. Her tournament was the embodiment of a big-point player. Her victory was not defined by domination but by timing, akin to Novak Djokovic’s 2019 Wimbledon final.
When human beings refer to the act of letting go, they might sometimes refer to the physical act of releasing a rope or some other physical object. Yet, for many, “letting go” is less a physical act and much more of a mental one.
“Let it go, man! It’s not worth obsessing about!”
“Let it go! You have better things to do with your time and energy!”
In competition, however, “letting go” can be tricky. Yes, players DO have to let go of their frustrating and negative experiences. For Kenin against Muguruza, the 21-year-old American had to let go of the first set and turn the page in set two. She did.
Yet, in another sense, “letting go” isn’t productive. Sometimes, “letting go” means “ceasing to be connected to something.” Kenin could have lost touch with this match after losing the first set. She could have played set two in a foggy state and not played every point with supreme attentiveness and intent.
We see it all the time, even from the very best.
In the quarterfinals, Ash Barty won a very close and complicated first set in a tiebreaker (the very thing Kenin did against Barty one round later). Petra Kvitova let go of the match in the second set, as Barty cruised to the finish line.
Kvitova thought about the first set in the first four games of the second, as Barty raced to a 4-0 lead and won without too much drama. Not being fully present gave Barty the chance to dominate the second set.
Sofia Kenin’s greatest asset as a tennis player is that she doesn’t let go of matches. She might not be the better player on a given day — though she was against Muguruza and throughout this tournament — but she ALWAYS remains present. She is always engaged in the moment.
This refusal to let go, this steadfast insistence on making sure her opponents earn everything they get, is a central tennis virtue. If opponents aren’t willing to answer the extra questions Kenin asks them, Kenin will become the unanswerable champion she was in Melbourne.
Kenin remained attached to each moment in Australia, more than the rest of the 128-player field. Living in the now is what won her this major title. It is precisely why the future — often a subject right after young players win major championships in tennis — doesn’t feel like the proper point of focus or emphasis, even though many will speculate about it.
Let’s just stay in the present moment. That’s what won the Australian Open for Sofia Kenin, after all.