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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sofia Kenin, a teen with too many hands to count, has found a rare starting place at the U.S. Open

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BEAU MESSIER

Sofia Kenin, an 18-year-old with too many hands to count, and her family, who came to the U.S. from Croatia in 1995, have always been family. Four years ago, when she was 17, a photo of Sofia with Caroline Wozniacki, then the world’s top-ranked woman, helped catapult her to the top of the junior women’s rankings. Two years ago, it was this year’s long-haired, straggly-haired Wimbledon champion who charmed her, to use Kenin’s words, “in such a beautiful way.”

Kenin had been in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time as a child, she said, when Maria Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title there in 2004. On Monday night, it was Kenin’s turn to dazzle on the court, a young woman about to face one of the biggest challenges of her young career. Kenin, for the first time, steps on an Ashe Stadium court, this time for the main draw of the French Open and, even if Serena Williams weren’t pulling double duty at the U.S. Open, her toughest on-court foe would still be Williams, which would place pressure on the teenager.

Yet though Kenin was transformed from a house-party hobbyist into an increasingly talented young tennis player when she met Wozniacki, she has battled injuries along the way, both a back and foot injury, and though she played well against Wozniacki, going down 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, against the world’s second-ranked player, she is learning that Williams may be tougher than just an all-out, overpowering force who draws opponents out.

Against Wozniacki, Kenin tried to get inside her game, something Serena Williams always does, and earn the advantage in that aspect of the game. She ended up on net a lot, losing as many as eight points on the line. In this context, the dual meaning of Serena Williams’ ability to find her way back into rallies, such as when she won the U.S. Open semifinal against Julia Goerges earlier this year, matters. “Even if I played well today, she never goes away,” Kenin said. “She is always in control. But if you win the points and you make her come out to play, I feel like that can be a big turning point.”

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