The 21-year-old Floridian came alive under the bright lights and closed roof of Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne and fist-pumped away any pressure she might have felt playing in her first major tournament final Saturday at the Australian Open. Kenin defeated Garbine Muguruza, the two-time major champion and former world No. 1 from Spain, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, to claim her first Grand Slam title.
“This is my first speech,” Kenin said afterward, head tilted to reach a microphone suited more for the 6-foot Muguruza than her 5-7 stature, “but I’m going to try my best."
Kenin, who was born in Moscow but moved to the United States as a baby, will reach the top 10 for the first time thanks to the victory. When the world rankings are released Monday, she will be the top-ranked American woman at No. 7, two spots ahead of Williams.
Kenin covered her face in disbelief Saturday after beating the 26-year-old Muguruza, overcome and in a happy state of shock that lasted through her post-match speech.
“My dream has officially come true, I cannot even describe this feeling,” Kenin said. “It’s so emotional and I’ve worked so hard and I’m just so grateful to be standing here. You know, dreams come true.”
She called the Australian Open “the two best weeks of her life,” and indeed, the tournament saw some of her best play.
Kenin, the 14th seed, didn’t face a seeded player through the quarterfinals in Melbourne, but she raised her level without trouble when big moments called for it. In the fourth round, she beat Gauff, her more highly touted, 15-year-old compatriot, and in the semifinals she upset world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the home-nation favorite, in two tightly competed sets.
She rose to the occasion again Saturday, controlling her emotions to deprive the more experienced Muguruza of a third Grand Slam title. The Spaniard won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017.
Kenin, who is coached by her father, Alexander, was undaunted.
The match came down to the fifth game of the third set, tied at 2. Kenin was on serve and in serious trouble, trailing 0-40, when she roared back to win the game and then some — she pulled out five consecutive winners, including an ace. She didn’t lose another game in the match.
The streak encapsulated one of the more engrossing aspects of Kenin’s style, which was on display all match.
The American was by far the more emotional player on court, chastising herself constantly, bouncing her racket and angrily spiking balls after winning big points as if she had lost them. But after every mini-outburst during a changeover, Kenin stepped to the line with a blank face, her visor pulled low as if to block out distraction and her memory as good as wiped clean. Even when facing pressure-packed break points, her aggressive level of play hardly dipped throughout the more than two-hour match.
Kenin kept Muguruza guessing the entire time, attacking her second serve with ferocity and precision. She mixed in chip shots and defensive lobs and turned to her beloved drop shot whenever possible. She placed her serves well and played her strong backhand beautifully to string the Spaniard around the court, turning defense into offense as Muguruza’s movement worsened in the second set.
Kenin roared back after losing the first set to take a 3-1 lead in the second and force the deciding third set.
Muguruza, playing her fourth career Grand Slam final, had never played a third set in a title match, and her footwork declined as play wore on; Kenin only grew more confident. The Spaniard, in the midst of a resurgence after falling out of the top 30 at the end of 2019, beat three top-10 players en route to the final but handed Kenin the match on a double-fault at championship point.
“I’m sure we’re going to have many more finals to come in the future,” Kenin said after congratulating Muguruza on a tournament well played.
Kenin certainly will have the time to develop rivalries with many top players. She is the youngest Australian Open champion in 12 years, barely younger than Naomi Osaka was when she claimed the title last year. The youngest champion before Kenin was 20-year-old Maria Sharapova, another Florida-based Russian immigrant and one of Kenin’s idols.
On Monday, Kenin also will be the youngest American since 1999 to make her top-10 debut, finally sharing in the shine of a much-lauded group of American women.