Kenin looking to thrive under pressure

 - Reem Abulleil

American happy to lean on Djokovic for advice as rest of WTA stars prep for new challenges

Sofia Kenin smiling while looking up at 2020 Roland-Garros©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

So much has changed in the world since Sofia Kenin stormed to a maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open 11 months ago but one thing has remained constant: the level of pressure she applies on herself while competing on tour. 

The American world No.4 followed up her Melbourne breakthrough in February with a runner-up showing at Roland-Garros in October – falling to Iga Swiatek in the final – solidifying her place among the game’s elite, despite the coronavirus pandemic that forced the tour into a five-month hiatus.

Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek posing with their trophies after the 2020 Roland-Garros final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

With an eye on her title defence at Melbourne Park next month, the 22-year-old Kenin will kick off her 2021 campaign in Abu Dhabi this week, where she is the top seed of a new WTA 500-level tournament staged there.  

“I definitely feel like I’m a top player and I’ve proven it,” Kenin told reporters in the UAE capital on Tuesday.  

“And I definitely feel like there’s more pressure from the outside, I’m putting a bit more pressure, trying to have good runs at tournaments, being quite hard on myself at the Slams, so hopefully I can have a good run there. Overall confidence of course has gone up. I had a good last year tennis-wise so I’m just going to try to keep the momentum going.”

Sofia Kenin looking surprised at the 2020 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It all started in Paris

Kenin traces back her success at the majors to her fourth-round run at Roland-Garros in 2019, where she stunned her idol Serena Williams along the way. 

“I feel like from there things kind of clicked for me,” she explains. 

Her triumph over Williams gave her the belief that she could go toe to toe with the best there ever was, and do it on the sport’s grandest stage. 

Since her Australian Open success last year, Kenin has felt like she has a target on her back, and she is particularly aware of the pressure that will come when she returns to the site of her greatest victory so far, as well as when she flies back to Paris for Roland-Garros later this year to defend her finalist points. 

“The pressure I put on myself… it’s pretty easy to handle, I’ve always been hard on myself,” Kenin added. 

“That’s why I hated losing, in practices I’d always cry when I was little, so that pressure, I kind of like established that, so it’s fine. I just gotten used to the pressure.”

Pearls of wisdom from Nole

The WTA has seen many champions produce dazzling performances to clinch their first Grand Slam titles, only to struggle with the weight of expectations that followed. 

Kenin admires many former champions but revealed there is one particular superstar she can call upon if she ever felt she needed guidance on how to navigate a title defence at the majors. 

“I definitely think I can talk to Novak [Djokovic], since we started talking and we’re talking,” said Kenin. 

“I think that would be helpful, since we’re both defending champions [in Melbourne], I think he would give me some great advice. 

“He gave me great advice before the Australian Open final [against Garbine Muguruza], because obviously we were practicing next to each other and he came up to me and was really nice about it, told me some things before the final, which was special because obviously I was crazy nervous and he told me some things which I will not disclose.”

Elina Svitolina in the corridor at the entrance of the Philippe Chatrier court during 2020 Roland-Garros©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Surviving the bubble life

While Kenin tackles the responsibilities that have come with her new role as a top-five player and major champion, others have been focused on finding ways to excel amidst strict bubble conditions on tour. 

Ukrainian world No.5 Elina Svitolina took a decision during the offseason to hire a mental coach to help her not just survive, but thrive, in the bubble life. 

“I think during the difficult time right now I think mentally it’s very important to stay strong, to stay fresh, with all the tournaments that are going to happen right now, pretty much all of them are very important and very big, so you have a different kind of pressure,” said Svitolina, who made the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros for a third time in her career last October.  

“And also playing without the people, the fans, it’s a different atmosphere, so after playing a few tournaments at the end of last season I was thinking to take the mental coach and I think it’s the right decision for me right now. There are lots of things happening, also we have the Olympics this year, so it’s very important to stay focused and to be ready for anything that comes my way and I think this was the decision that I made.”

Pairing up with Iga

Players heading to Melbourne soon in order to compete in next month’s Australian Open are required to choose one practice partner to train with during the first week of quarantine upon arrival Down Under. They can add two more players to their closed practice group in the following week. 

Svitolina managed to pair up with reigning Roland-Garros champion Swiatek. The duo boast contrasting styles and appear to be a perfect match for one another with Swiatek bringing her power game to the table and Svitolina providing lengthy rallies to test the Pole’s patience. 

“Straightaway after the meeting when we found out that we’ll have to choose one player, straightaway we thought about Iga,” Svitolina shared.  

“We practiced a couple of times with her and really enjoyed hitting with each other. So straightaway they answered, ‘Let’s do it’. 

“I think it’s a good hitting partner for me and hopefully she’s happy as well. Because I think we’re hitting lots of balls back and that’s what you want for good preparation.”

Nadia Podoroska's joy during 2020 Roland-Garros©Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

New territory for Nadia

One Roland-Garros standout benefitting from great preparation this week in Abu Dhabi is surprise semi-finalist Nadia Podoroska, who upset Svitolina in Paris a few months ago to reach the last four at a major for the first time, as a qualifier nonetheless. 

Podoroska practiced with Muguruza in the UAE capital the other day and says her transition from the ITF to the WTA tour due to her rapid rise post-Roland-Garros has been a positive one. 

“It’s the place where I always wanted to be, so for me it’s quite easy,” she said of kicking it with the big guns. 

“Of course there are too many things that are new for me, but it’s the place where I want to be, so always it’s positive.”

The Argentine’s practice partner in Melbourne will be French former world No.4 Caroline Garcia.

Ons Jabeur and Sofia Kenin at the net at the 2020 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Setting goals vs. No expectations

The uncertainty of the world mid-pandemic has made it hard for some players to set concrete objectives for the new season. 

World No.10 Aryna Sabalenka, who ended 2020 by clinching back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz, says the key to success this year will be to have no expectations “because last year showed us everything can change in one second. I just want to stay in the moment, doing everything I can, do everything 100 per cent and that’s it”. 

Tunisian Ons Jabeur is taking a different approach. A quarter-finalist in Melbourne last year, Jabeur rose to a career-high 31 in the world in 2020 and is raring to go higher this season. 

“I want to go for titles, enough of quarter-finals. I want to be in the top 10. I know I have the level, I could be in this ranking. So for me I’ve set up my goals like this. I know I can achieve them, I know that I put in the hard work that I needed to have those titles, to be able to win more and more, so let’s see,” said Jabeur, who is the highest ranked Arab woman in tennis history.

Karolina Pliskova smiles during a practice at 2020 Roland-Garros©Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

‘I don’t want to complain’

Former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova believes perspective will be crucial for her this season. Instead of focusing on the tough conditions or Covid-related restrictions, the Czech star wants to zone in on the positives. 

“Definitely what I don’t want to do this year is I don’t want to complain about anything, about the rules, about tournaments, about how maybe not ideal the conditions are going to be,” assured Pliskova. “For me it’s still better than being home. 

“I think there isn’t any point in complaining since everything is quite okay, my family is healthy, I can travel and I can still do what I want to do and I can still do what I love, I think there is no room for complaining and that’s what I want to do this year, no matter how my results go,” she concluded with a laugh. 

It’s an attitude we should all learn to embrace!