MELBOURNE, Australia — Sofia Kenin became the youngest Australian Open champion in 12 years on Saturday night, beating Garbiñe Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 to claim her first Grand Slam title.
All it took was pivotal sequence midway through the final set, five points that included what Kenin called the “five best shots of my life.”
Serving at 2-2, Kenin fell behind 0-40, one point away from dropping the game and giving Muguruza a significant edge in the match. Instead, Kenin played bold yet controlled, hitting five consecutive winners to turn things around.
She won her first point in the game with an inside-out backhand. The next, with a backhand down the line. She got back to deuce with a forehand down the line. She then took an advantage with a wide ace past Muguruza’s forehand, and closed out the game with a passing cross-court forehand. She punctuated her escape by throwing the ball she had been storing in her pocket high in the air.
“After that, I was on fire,” Kenin said. “I was ready to take the beautiful trophy.”
All four of the rallies Kenin won in that decisive game extended beyond 10 shots, mirroring the dynamic between the players throughout the match. Both players prefer to dictate rallies, but Kenin proved the more comfortable counterpuncher and the better player in long exchanges. Kenin won 23 of 34 points that lasted nine shots or longer. Her coach and father, Alex Kenin, said that he expected his daughter to rise to the occasion, but that even he was staggered by what she produced.
“She pulled out something unbelievable,” he said. “Hitting five winners, that goes to history.”
After Kenin fought back to go up 3-2, Muguruza crumbled. She double faulted on a break point in the next game, then hit three double faults in her next service game. Her final double fault ended the match.
“At the important moments I didn’t find my shots,” Muguruza said. “I think she found her shots.”
With the title secured, Kenin dropped her racket in disbelief and covered her face with both hands. She embraced Muguruza, who had walked around the net to greet her, then ran over to celebrate with her father.
Muguruza, a champion at the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017, said that if Kenin “keeps playing like this,” she will go on to win more Grand Slam titles. “She proved to us that she can play very well,” Muguruza said. “And play very well in the important moments, which is a different story. I think it’s even more special.”
Kenin’s victory in her first major final represents a growing youth takeover in women’s tennis. At 21 years and 80 days of age, Kenin is 22 days younger than Naomi Osaka was when she won the title last year. In the previous Grand Slam tournament, the United States Open in September, the champion was the 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu. Kenin is the youngest champion in Melbourne since a 20-year-old Maria Sharapova won here in 2008.
The youngest Australian Open champion is Martina Hingis, who was 16 when she won in 1997.
Following in Sharapova’s footsteps seems fitting, as Kenin’s path in the sport has been similar. Kenin’s parents first moved to the United States from Russia in 1987, but traveled back to Moscow for Sofia’s birth so they could have the support of their extended family.
The Kenins returned to the United States soon after, and tennis quickly became a part of Sofia’s upbringing.
Kenin said her victory represented “a dream come true,” and a validation of the work she and her father have put in together.
“He sees everything well. Even though I don’t like to admit it sometimes, to tell him he’s right,” Kenin said, adding: “We can share this forever.”
Unlike Sharapova, who also honed her game at Florida tennis academies under a father’s watchful eye, Kenin has always represented the United States. On Monday, Kenin will become the top-ranked American woman in the world rankings, passing Serena Williams and reaching No. 7. She will be the youngest American woman to debut in the top 10 since Williams in 1999.
Kenin defeated Williams in the third round of the French Open last year, a victory that she said helped build her confidence. “I feel like, after that, things just took off,” Kenin said this week.
Kenin, who was named the WTA’s most improved player of 2019, racked up three WTA titles last year, but at minor stops on the tour: Hobart, Australia; Majorca, Spain; and Guangzhou, China. She had never advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam event before this tournament, when she did so by beating a more highly rated young American, the 15-year-old Coco Gauff.
Kenin’s championship comes at a time when no woman has been able to consistently dominate, leading to variety in the late rounds of Grand Slam tournaments. Saturday’s matchup between Muguruza and Kenin was the fourth consecutive women’s Grand Slam final without a top-five player. Kenin is the eighth first-time champion in the last 12 women’s Grand Slam events.
Kenin, seeded 14th, did not face any seeded opposition at this tournament until the semifinals, when she saved four set points to defeat top-seeded Ashleigh Barty, deflating the hopes of Australians who had banked on Barty’s becoming the country’s first homegrown singles champion since 1978.
Unlike Barty and several other Americans, Kenin flew largely under the radar outside of hard-core tennis circles before this tournament. Even though she has avoided some of the pressure felt by her peers with a higher profile, Kenin has craved a share of the spotlight. When she turned the corner into the press room on Saturday night and saw it packed with reporters, she gasped and smiled as if she had just won again.
“So many of you guys are here — I’m just not used to this,” Kenin said. “It’s my first time, first everything. I’m taking it all in and doing it really well, so thank you guys for coming.”
Christopher Clarey in Melbourne contributed reporting.