French Open: Sofia Kenin finally romancing clay

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“I usually don’t play really good on clay. In the past, in juniors, I really hated the clay,” Sofia Kenin said last week about the surface that would make her feel “choked”.

Since 2017, when she became a top-200 player in the world, till the start of the French Open, Kenin has a 6-13 win-loss record in WTA tournaments played on clay, with eight opening-round defeats in 11 WTA clay court tournaments over the last three years. So desperate was Kenin to find her feet on clay that she entered into an ITF (a rung below the WTA level) clay court tournament in Alabama in April 2018 despite being ranked 87 in the world back then. Even there, she crashed out in the quarter-finals.

Who wouldn’t she hate the dirt?

Maybe clay just wasn’t her thing. Maybe, this 21-year-old who won the Australian Open earlier this year was meant to excel only on hard courts. Not really.

On Saturday, Kenin will vie for her first title at Roland Garros, and second Major of the year, against Polish teen Iga Swiatek. This, after being double bageled (6-0, 6-0) by Victoria Azarenka a few weeks ago in the first round of the Italian Open in Rome.

What’s changed with the Kenin-clay relationship? Kenin points back to the 2019 French Open where she exited from the Round of 16. In the previous match, she defeated compatriot Serena Williams in straight sets. Though she lost the next match, winning against Williams made her realize that she could play on clay after all. She found a few things that she could tweak – the deft touches to her solidity from the baseline, especially off her backhand. She began understanding how to move, and slide, better on the court. All of that was in show in her 6-4, 7-5 semi-final victory against Petra Kvitova, the same player who thrashed her 6-1, 6-4 in the 2019 Madrid Open first round on clay.

On Thursday, Kenin threw Kvitova off her power game by using the angles with some smart court movement, slicing the ball every now and then to ensure Kvitova didn’t have the pace to work with. Kenin even delivered the odd dropshot return winner off her backhand as a response to Kvitova’s big leftie serves out wide.

“I feel like I’m playing some of my best tennis on clay,” Kenin said. “I’m sliding a lot, moving a lot. I know how to adjust to the surface, so I’m loving the clay.”

The last time Kenin and Swiatek met on clay was as juniors at the 2016 French Open, where a 15-year-old Swiatek beat Kenin 6-4, 7-5 in the third round. But as Kenin said, both are different players now.

That certainly stands for Swiatek, who has defied age and maturity in this tournament by dropping just 23 games and zero sets while marching into her first Grand Slam final. Kenin, meanwhile, has seen four of her six matches go the distance.

“I remember I lost,” Kenin said of their juniors match. “I don’t remember how I played, but definitely I can say I was not as comfortable on clay as I am now.”

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