By Arthur Kapetanakis
While COVID-19 forced the cancellation of much of the 2020 US Open Series, the show will go on in New York this summer. Both the US Open and the Western & Southern Open are set to be played in a controlled environment at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, marking the much-anticipated return to top-level tennis. As the countdown continues, USOpenSeries.com caught up with reigning Australian Open champ and American No. 1 Sofia Kenin to discuss her eventful year.
The 2020 Western & Southern Open will begin on Aug. 20, while the 2020 US Open is set to start on Aug. 31.
Before she became the Australian Open champion, Sofia Kenin's best WTA results—at least in terms of ranking points won—came in consecutive weeks during the 2019 US Open Series. The 21-year-old won her first two WTA titles earlier in 2019 at the International level, but her runs to the semifinals of the Rogers Cup and the Western & Southern Open proved she could compete with the game's best on some of the world's biggest stages.
In back-to-back weeks, Kenin took out two different world No. 1s—first Ashleigh Barty in the Rogers Cup second round, then freshly minted No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the Rogers Cup quarters. In both semis, she lost to the tournament's eventual champ: Bianca Andreescu in Toronto and Madison Keys in Cincinnati.
After starting the 2019 season at world No. 56 and without a WTA title to her name, Kenin ended at No. 14 and with three trophies. Her performance earned her the 2019 WTA Most Improved Player of the Year award.
But Kenin, with the help of her father and coach, Alexander Kenin, wasn't done improving. Now a Grand Slam champion, she has her sights set on even bigger goals. Read on for more about Kenin's relentless drive to continue her rapid rise.
Q: Let's start with the obvious question... can you share how you spent your time during quarantine? Were you on the court much?
Sofia Kenin: I was literally home [in Pembroke Pines, Fla.] every day, so I obviously could not go out. It was pretty simple; I was just home with my family. I was able to practice on a private court every day, non-stop, except on the weekends I would have days off. I was hitting almost every day for the past three months, and doing fitness. It’s been just tennis back home and just trying to be safe and healthy.
Q: After your amazing start to the 2020 season—winning the Australian Open and then in Lyon—the timing of the COVID-19 suspension was certainly not ideal for you. What did you make of that timing, and have you been able to spin it into a positive at all?
SK: Definitely the timing wasn’t the best. It’s really upsetting what happened with the virus.
There were days when I wasn’t really motivated over the months. You’re constantly getting news from the WTA saying that tournaments are canceled. So there’s nothing really to hold you to go forward; you don’t know what’s going to happen.
It was tough, but my dad helped me with motivation. He said one day the tournaments would happen, and he was right.
I’m happy I was doing everything I could to stay in shape. When I was practicing, it didn’t feel like there was anything to look forward to, but I had good practices and I got ready for this time… hopefully there’s going to be Cincy and the US Open soon.
Q: What does it mean to you to be in the WTA’s Top 5, now at No. 4? Are you still pinching yourself, or has it sunk in now as your new reality?
SK: It has sunk in, of course, it’s reality. I knew I could get to the highest level. That’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to make the transition from juniors to the pros, and then climb up the rankings, do well at the Slams. Of course, winning the Australian Open was the best feeling ever, I can’t even describe.
I think I can compete with the best players in the world, and that’s what I want to do. I want to play with the best of the best and play on those big stages.
I feel like I’m playing well, I deserve where I am. I got there with all the hard work that I‘ve done, and my dad’s done, and my family behind me.
So this is the reality, but I want to be No. 1. So it’s a long way to go, but I’m super excited, and hopefully I can keep going forward.
Q: I know you love representing your country, all the way back to winning Junior Fed Cup in 2015 and now in Fed Cup. What does it mean to you to be the No. 1 American?
SK: It’s amazing. I’m really happy; it’s an honor. Like you said, I love representing my country. I love playing in front of the American crowd.
The team atmosphere of Fed Cup, it’s really different. I really enjoy playing with that feeling that everyone’s behind you.
Q: As we look ahead to the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, what are your thoughts on the safety measures that will be in place in New York?
SK: Of course, the first priority is for everyone to stay safe and be healthy, and make sure everyone is taking every precaution they can with the masks and social distancing. Hopefully everyone is going to follow those rules. Of course, it’s not pleasant—the fact that we can’t go into Manhattan and it’s just in one place for a few weeks. So it’s obviously going to be a little bit different.
I’m going to take every precaution I can to stay safe, and my dad is, also.
But if it’s going to happen, I’m going to be happy to finally start the WTA circuit and be playing again against the best players. I think all of us should be grateful that it’s happening and we’re able to finally play again. I’m sure everyone misses it. We’ve just got to take precautions. I know it’s not convenient, but it is what it is, and we just have to deal with it.
Q: Will the safety measures affect your team at all, as far as who travels with you?
SK: It’ll be as normal, just with my dad. Obviously, we’ll take all the protocols and everything, but it’s not anything different. So it’s going to be good.
Q: Were you surprised at all by the strength of the Western & Southern Open field, which was announced Wednesday? There are 14 out of the WTA’s Top 20 and a heavy majority of the Top 50 on the initial entry list.
SK: I’m happy that everyone’s playing. Hopefully the borders will open up for everyone to travel. It’s going to be exciting tennis.
I feel like all of the fans and everyone around the world is going to be excited to see live tennis, instead of watching old matches, which is still better than nothing. Of course, everyone wants to get out again and connect with us and watch and support us, even if it’s only on TV.
Q: As much as you can have goals in this current situation, what are your targets for the the summer and going forward?
SK: Well, of course, it depends what’s going to happen, given the circumstances. I guess there are mini goals… it’s tough to look ahead, since anything can change.
Just try to do well at the US Open. That’s where it counts, that’s where the points and the atmosphere, everything is there. Everyone remembers what happens at the Slams.
So hopefully leading up to the US Open with Cincy, hopefully I can have a good run there—maybe even win it, hopefully—and then have a good tournament at the US Open. I’m going to take it match by match, hopefully have some success and get to where I want to be.