Only one other woman has made at least the fourth round of all three major tournaments this year: Petra Kvitova, whom Kenin defeated in a semifinal Thursday, 6-4, 7-5. It was a gutsy win in which she outran one of the sharpest power players in the game.
“It’s not easy getting to a Grand Slam final,” the sixth-ranked Kenin said. “Having two this year, it’s really special.”
To be consistent at majors during this fragmented year has required adjustment from Kenin, the Moscow-born daughter of Russian immigrants.
It helps that she thrives in a fight and relishes the bright lights of major events.
When Kenin won her title in Melbourne in February, she was the sport’s youngest Grand Slam singles champion in 12 years. Since then, she has hurdled a couple of stumbling blocks in her young career. After winning an inaugural Grand Slam title, players can be inundated with new sponsorship deals and requests from tournaments offering hefty appearance fees, but Kenin didn’t get her victory lap. The tour shut down less than two months after the Australian Open, and the 21-year-old retreated home to train. She also faced the unusual problem of being a reigning Grand Slam champion struggling to find motivation.
“I was quite devastated by what happened, of course what's going on around the world,” Kenin said. “But speaking about myself, it was obviously devastating. … I felt like I was playing some of my best tennis, and just all of it shut down."
On court, Kenin faced a more acute setback in the weeks leading up to the French Open.
She suffered a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka at the Italian Open in Rome, the kind of defeat that can burrow in a player's mind — especially on clay, a surface Kenin admits to disliking up until last year, when her third-round upset over Serena Williams at the French Open gave her a newfound confidence on the red dust. Kenin had never been past the quarterfinals in a clay-court event before now.
After tennis returned from its novel coronavirus hiatus, Kenin pushed through training to rediscover her motivation.
After the loss to Azarenka, she trusted the most elemental part of her game — Kenin is a problem-solver at her core — and found her rhythm through a series of three-set victories. By contrast, Kvitova, her opponent Thursday, moved through the draw like a shark, without dropping a set. Kenin’s wins were noisy.
When the pair met in the semifinals, Kenin’s confidence radiated even when she banged her racket on the ground or yelled at herself.
Kenin played the type of tennis that can become demoralizing to her opponents, a style usually associated with Rafael Nadal, sliding expertly from corner to corner and refusing to give up on a rally or game long after most players would. Leading 3-2 and serving at deuce in the critical juncture in the second set Thursday, Kenin saved four break points and won the nearly 10-minute game to take a 4-2 lead.
She had the chance to serve for the match four games later, but Kvitova evened things at 5-5; instead of unraveling, Kenin broke back and simply served out the match at her next opportunity.
There was no smile, no outpouring of relief when she won, just a short puff of air expelled as Kenin stalked off court to retrieve her towel.
“You've really got to, first of all, love the game, you got to love the competition, you got to love to compete,” Kenin said, explaining the problem-solving part of her game. “You have to have that feist in you. Losing, I really hate, and I love winning. I try to do everything I can to win. … I felt like I could not overpower her. I knew I just needed to adjust my game. I had to control the points, move her, dictate, try not to give her short balls, try to have a good serve."
On Saturday, Kenin faces another player who hasn't dropped a set throughout the fortnight — in fact, no one has won more than four games in a set against the 54th-ranked Swiatek in Paris this year.
The Polish teen, who beat Nadia Podoroska, 6-2, 6-1, in their semifinal Thursday, became the lowest-ranked women’s finalist at the French Open since computer rankings began in 1975.
But Kenin has shown she is the type of player who can solve Swiatek’s powerful groundstrokes the way no one else has at Roland Garros. And she has experience on her side in the form of a major title on her résumé and a 16-1 record at Grand Slams this year.
“I’m going to use that as my advantage,” Kenin said. “I’m definitely going to feel a bit nervous. … I’ve been there, done that. I know what the emotions are getting into your first Grand Slam final. I’m hoping she’s going to be a little bit nervous.”
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