Sofia Kenin, Australian Open champion. Say it out loud if necessary. Perhaps then it might seem like it’s true.
The 14th seed defeated dual grand slam champion Garbine Muguruza 4-6 6-2 6-2 in just over two hours on Saturday night, the match ending with the unseeded Spaniard’s ninth double fault.
It was as if Kenin, a first-time major finalist, could not quite believe it, walking over to her player box to greet father and coach Alex and repeatedly saying “oh, my God, oh, God’”.
It was supposed to be another American, Serena Williams, who would make history at Melbourne Park, for a 24th singles major would have tied her with Margaret Court.
Instead, the 21-year-old Kenin is the youngest Australian Open champion since a 20-year-old Maria Sharapova beat Ana Ivanovic in 2008.
Kenin is the eighth first-time winner from the past 12 women’s singles draws at grand slams. By vaulting from 15th to No.7 on the WTA rankings, she is the youngest American to debut in the top 10 since Williams in 1999, and now her country’s new No.1.
Another US great, Lindsay Davenport, presented the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup to the one-time junior prodigy, who warned that “this is my first speech but I’m gonna try my best’’.
After congratulating Muguruza, Kenin continued: “I just want to say my dream has officially came true. I can not even describe this feeling.
It’s so emotional and I’ve worked so hard and I’m just so grateful standing here. Dreams come true, so you have a dream, go for it and it’s gonna come true.’’
And Kenin said it had come only after hard work and the belief of her family.
“We have worked so hard, all the hard work and the effort I have done in the past, with everyone I have been with, and my dad has been part of this and I’m so proud,” she said on Channel Nine as the triumph sunk in. “It is amazing to share this with him.”
The tears were Muguruza’s, the Spaniard warning she would keep it short. With a shaky voice, she praised her opponent, then thanked her team. “They’re over there suffering with me today.”
Muguruza admitted she was struggling physically and lacking energy later in the match.
“I’m not very happy about my performance,’ she said, without detracting from Kenin’s. “I think I had to play better today because she came up with a great level.
“I think at the important moments I didn’t find my shots. I think she found her shots, I didn’t find my shots.
“It’s just a tough moment. Right now it’s tough to be happy, although it has been an incredible tournament.’’
Still, it had been a fabulous comeback tournament that delivered Muguruza her fourth appearance in a grand slam final, two-and-a-half years after the most recent of her three.
If the 26-year-old could not add an Australian title to the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon, then the former world No.1 is back to No.16 after a difficult period and and, under coach Conchita Martinez, a contender once again.
As she did against compatriot Coco Gauff in the fourth round, Kenin needed to recover from a set down, but showed great poise and maturity to hold her nerve. Grit and determination are two other Kenin calling cards. She had nothing to lose, and always appears to believe she can, will, win.
Muguruza was the favourite, and while it had taken Ash Barty more than a set to breach the Kenin serve in their semi-final, the Spaniard needed just two attempts.
She had four chances for a double break at 4-2, only for Kenin to hold on in typically tenacious fashion and then immediately level at 4-4.
The Spaniard struck back immediately, though, to convert her second set point after 52 minutes. Her big first serve was proving to be a potent weapon, winning 80 per cent when landing the first ball, and dominating the shorter points.
Of the two players, it was easier to predict which Kenin would turn up, for this is a player who either competes, or competes harder still.
Muguruza? If it was last year’s version, that would be a very different prospect to the player who won two majors and reached No.1 in 2017.
She was more demonstrative on court than in her previous matches, but also seemed to be labouring more at times than her energetic younger opponent, taking deep breaths and seeking extra time between points.
Both finalists had endured brutal conditions in semis played in 40-plus degree temperatures on Thursday, and although the roof was closed against the rainy night skies and temperatures were cooler, the humidity was high.
A loose service game from Muguruza handed the advantage to Kenin for 3-1, and her intensity rose along with the fiery American’s confidence that the match was a long way from done. She charges around the court like someone who knows where she is headed and doesn’t want to waste a second getting there. That would be a deciding set, soon enough.
A more aggressive mindset combined with a more frugal unforced error rate – from 15 in the first set to just four in the second – and the momentum was all Kenin’s.
The doctor and the trainer were called by the Spaniard at the start of the third, checking her lower back and providing some medication which Muguruza did not immediately appear to take.
She has a fine record in deciding sets at Melbourne Park, and would need to find something special in this one, with both her first serve percentage and forehand efficiency having dipped.
Kenin, though, briefly struggled with her emotions on such a big occasion, perhaps aware of how close the finish line had become. Her previous best grand slam result was the round-of-16 at last year’s French Open. At Melbourne Park, she had won just one match.
The key game was on Kenin’s serve at 2-2, and her composure from 0-40 was something to behold. She simply refused to retreat, or play safely, hitting three winners, an ace and a passing shot. She would have to be beaten. Always does.
“I have worked on mental toughness, and I am a fighter and not going to give up,” she said late on Channel Nine. “I am so proud of myself these last two weeks, such an incredible journey and I will forever cherish this.
“I feel like mental toughness was a huge part of my success here. I handled it really well, and this is just beyond incredible right now. I have no words.”
From 40-15 in the next game, a trio of Muguruza errors presented Kenin with a break point. She had converted all three previously. On the fourth a double fault. It was over two games later, after almost two hours.
She had won her first title only a year ago, in Hobart, this Australian Open champion few had predicted.
Sofia Kenin. Go on. Say it again.
Dylan Alcott put a disappointing US Open result behind him to cement his dominance of the quad wheelchair event at the Australian Open.
The Australian defeated his Flushing Meadows conqueror Andy Lapthorne 6-0 6-4 to win his sixth straight title in his home town of Melbourne.
The 29-year-old missed just missed winning a calendar Grand Slam last year after winning the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles.
Alcott was emotional after the win, thrilled to have raised more than $40,000 for disabled Australians affected by the bushfires.
Australia’s only disabled winner of the Newcombe Medal, Alcott pledged to donate $100 per ace during his wheelchair quad singles and doubles campaigns.
With several sponsors kicking in, he ensured $800 for every one of his 41 aces would go towards disabled bushfire sufferers.
“We will be donating $40,000 to help people with a disability affected by bushfires,” Alcott said.
“And I know it’s been a pretty tough time in Australia and to try to help out in any way that we can, I was donating $100 per ace at the Australian Open and then all my team actually came on board.
“So, we actually donated $800 per ace and coming in to today.”
Doubles wildcards plan for a fun final fling
While Australia’s big hope Ash Barty may not have made it through to the pointy end of the tournament, the home fans still have something to cheer about with the wildcard surprise packet of Luke Saville and Max Purcell ready for their big day.
The pair would become the first all-Australian outfit in 23 years to claim the men’s doubles title if they beat the American-British pairing of Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury on Sunday.
Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge were the last all-Australian pairing to win the men’s doubles at Melbourne Park back in 1997.
“Starting out the week if you’d said we’d be in the final, we probably wouldn’t have quite believed it,” Saville said on Friday.
“We’ve always had belief in our games but to be playing off for the Australian Open, I live here, and in front of family and friends and doing it with my best mate – it’s been really good.”
Having watched on as now-fiancee Daria Gavrilova reached the fourth round of the women’s singles in 2016 and 2017, Saville is enjoying being involved in the pointy end of the action at Melbourne Park.
“I don’t really play tennis for the spotlight or anything – I play it because I love it,” he said.
Purcell agrees and says he’ll be making the most of the opportunity.
“We’ve just really found a lot of smiles on court with each other and really try to enjoy ourselves,” 21-year-old Purcell said.
Coming up Sunday …
Mens doubles final 3pm: 11-R. Ram/J. Salisbury v M. Purcell/L. Saville
Mens final 7.30pm: 5- D. Thiem v 2-N. Djokovic