Although it has surprised some, Sofia Kenin’s run to the Australian Open final has been coming, though Garbine Muguruza will provide stiff opposition.
Ash Barty and Simona Halep went into the Australian Open semifinals as the favorites, but instead it is Sofia Kenin and Garbine Muguruza who will contest Saturday’s final in Melbourne.
American Kenin saved two set points in each set before eventually prevailing 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 against Barty, whose defeat ended Australia’s hopes of a first singles champion on home soil since 1978.
Two players who have won the French Open and Wimbledon did battle in the other semi, with Muguruza coming out on top in another close affair, winning 7-6 (10-8) 7-5.
Halep could not convert four set points in the opener and then had a break advantage she could not maintain on two separate occasions in the second set.
Surprise results in each of the last-four ties means the final will be contested by the 14th seed, Kenin, and an unseeded player in Muguruza, with pre-tournament favorites Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka long since eliminated.
The two stars have only played each other once before in their careers and it was relatively recently in Beijing, with Kenin winning a deciding set on September 28.
But Muguruza is being favored by the betting markets heading into the final, partly because she has the past experience on the big occasion, having won at Roland Garros in 2016 and then at Wimbledon the year after.
The Spanish star has reunited with coach Conchita Martinez to impressive effect, halting a slump that saw her drop from world number 1 in September 2017 to 36 in the world at the end of 2019.
A welcome return to form saw her reach the semifinals of the Shenzhen Open and then win two matches at the Hobart International prior to withdrawing with a virus.
Muguruza, 26, needed deciding sets to get through rounds 1 and 2 but then impressively hit her stride at the Australian Open from there, two of the highlights being emphatic wins over Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens, the tournament’s fifth and ninth seeds, in rounds 3 and 4.
Another seed fell when she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the last eight before her tough tussle with Halep. In 2020, she has won 11 matches to just one defeat.
As for Kenin, while Serena Williams will obviously receive greater attention, she has also long operated under the radar compared to other American players like Coco Gauff, Amanda Anisimova and even Danielle Collins, who beat her in one of the Australian Open warm-up events in Adelaide.
But the 21-year-old’s credentials have been becoming increasingly impossible to ignore for some time.
A former junior star, the win over Barty highlighted Kenin’s key qualities, aggressiveness when it matters but above all a level of determination that few players can match.
She has sound defensive qualities, can counter big-hitting opponents and rarely concedes cheap points or suffers convincing defeats. To beat her, you have to earn it.
Kenin won more hard-court matches than anyone else on the Tour last season (h/t ESPN), as well as claiming her first three WTA titles, beating Serena in the first week at Roland Garros and recording wins over Osaka and Barty at other events.
In the space of two years she has risen from outside the top 100 to her current position of 15, which will improve further after her exploits over the past two weeks.
Yet few fans or analysts tipped her as a 2020 major contender, even after she was named the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year.
Her profile will change from now after six wins, all but one in straight sets, put her on the brink of a career-defining moment. It is true the draw opened up nicely, but beating home hope and world number one Barty on such a big stage erases any doubts about her deserving this spot.
She made our list of the female stars who could dominate the 2020s in Grand Slams and now has a shot at one much sooner than many expected.
However, it may have been easier for her to face a top seed with less to prove. Opponent Muguruza has been in formidable form on her comeback trail and has emerged from more difficult matches as well as possessing the game and superior experience to stand a strong chance of denying her.
Regardless of the result in the final, Sofia Kenin has now joined the elite of women’s tennis, while Garbine Muguruza has confirmed her return to that group.
Both will be thrilled with their Australian Open runs and Grand Slam glory is just one match away.