Dubai: Sofia Kenin will be the star attraction when she takes to the courts at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after lifting her first Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open.
When she reached the third round in Dubai a year ago she was ranked an anonymous No. 37 in the world, but she returns as the world No. 7 after overcoming the resurgent two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza in a pulsating final.
Known for her tenacity and determination, Kenin faced a crisis when she trailed 40-0 on her serve at 2-2 in the final set, but she fought back to hold before surging to victory.
“I can remember that game (at 2-2) very well,” she said. “I knew I had to take my chance. I had to be brave playing a two-time Grand Slam champion. I knew I needed to come up with the best shot, five best shots of my life. I felt that in the third set I was getting closer to the title, something that I really want. I knew I needed to somehow try and relax, just try to calm down. I did a great job. I looked a few times to my box. They cheered for me, calmed me down. It just paid off. After that, I was on fire.”
Her success in Melbourne came after she had failed to advance beyond the fourth round of any previous Grand Slam, but there were strong signs that she was on the rise throughout last season. She won three titles, reached the fourth round of a Slam for the first time by beating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, and she qualified for the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai and also the WTA Finals in Shenzhen as an alternate, where she played one match.
“My dream has officially come true,” she said. “I cannot even describe this feeling. It’s so emotional. I worked so hard. I’m so grateful to be standing here. Dreams come true. If you have a dream go for it and it’s gonna come true.”
It was a dream come true as well for her father and coach, Alex, who moved with his wife from Russia to the United States in 1987 and struggled to make ends meet while driving a New York taxi by night and going to English and computer classes by day. The family briefly moved back to Russia where Sofia was born, returning to the US when she was still a baby.
Following in the footsteps of Richard Williams who with no prior knowledge of the game produced two Grand Slam champion sisters — Serena and Venus — Alexander learnt by watching other coaches at work.
“He comes up with the right plans, the right strategies,” Sofia said. “I really have him to thank. He’s told me a lot of positive things. He knows exactly what he’s talking about, even though I don’t like to admit it sometimes, to tell him he’s right. Yeah, he really works hard. Just thank you to him. We can share this forever.”
Colm McLoughlin, Executive vice-chairman & CEO, Dubai Duty Free, said: “It has been clear for some time that Sofia Kenin would become a champion, and her performances in Melbourne were a pleasure to watch. We look forward to welcoming her back to Dubai and see if she can repeat her Australian success here in a field that includes all three of the other reigning Grand Slam champions.”