Sofia Kenin’s progression can, in one way, be tracked by the big names she’s faced on tennis’s grandest stages.

In 2017, the Floridian played her childhood hero Maria Sharapova in a glittery night session at the U.S. Open and lost, 7-5, 6-2. In 2019, she played another one of her idols in the third round of the French Open, this time defeating a not-quite-healthy Serena Williams 6-2, 7-5.

On Thursday at the Australian Open, 14th-seeded Kenin conquered her biggest moment yet when she defeated world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, an Aussie, 7-6 (8-6), 7-5, to advance to the first Grand Slam final of her career. Kenin, 21, is the first American other than Serena or Venus Williams to reach the Australian Open final since Andre Agassi in 2003.

“I’m so speechless. I honestly can’t believe this.” Kenin said on the court during her post-match interview. “I’ve just dreamed about this since I was 5 years old. … This wasn’t really an easy one.”

Kenin, who was born in Moscow but plays for the United States, had never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam in 11 career main-draw appearances. But she survived 100-degree heat and toppled Barty in front of a pro-Aussie crowd to move on to Saturday’s final, where she will face unseeded Garbine Muguruza of Spain, a two-time major champion.

Kenin dropped her racket and covered her face with her hands when she finally won Thursday’s match. But the American has never been one to hide from the spotlight nor shrink before a challenge. She showed off her feisty personality both in the sweltering head Thursday and against Williams in Paris last year, yelling “Come on!” frequently, thwacking the net post with her racket and kicking up clay in front of an ardently pro-Williams crowd.

She decided to turn pro not quite two years before that French Open match, in 2017 during the U.S. Open.

Kenin had lost in the first round twice before in New York, and decided along with her father and coach, Alex Kenin, that if she lost her first match again, she would seriously think about attending college at the University of Miami. To her delight, she made it to the third round before losing to Sharapova.

“I wanted to go pro, but having the option to go to college was important for me,” Kenin said in a phone interview with The Washington Post over the summer. “After I beat Lauren Davis [in the first round] I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going pro.’ When I got to that third round there was basically no discussion. That was a very easy decision. After the Sharapova match, I couldn’t turn down $120,000, I couldn’t turn that down!”

Kenin has steadily improved since then, operating mainly under the radar but rocketing her ranking from outside of the top 100 two years ago to 15th entering the Australian Open.

Her path to the final in Melbourne wasn’t an easy one, though she didn’t face any seeded players before beating Barty. She did face yet another grand moment in the fourth round against her compatriot Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old sensation who had downed both Venus Williams and the third-seed Naomi Osaka before she fell to Kenin in three sets.

In that match, Kenin showed both the mental fortitude required to beat Gauff, whose youth can psych out her opponents, and the on-court savvy that allowed her to expose Gauff's weaknesses on the forehand side and control the pace of the match.

Kenin is above all else a counterpuncher with an adaptable, aggressive game to suit her fighting spirit. She stands just 5-foot-7, short in tennis, and works well along the baseline with a variety of shots in her arsenal while showing no fear in moving up to net, though it's not her strongest suit.

“When I was little, I wasn’t the tallest, and right now with my height I’m happy with it and hopefully I’ll keep growing, but [my father and I] wanted me to be aggressive,” Kenin told The Post. “I’m not a player that’s going to grind at the baseline — I like to dictate and control the point and try to use my drop shot as a weapon. I just want to have an aggressive mind-set, try to take the ball out of the air and just come in.”

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