MELBOURNE, Australia – Sofia Kenin, the reigning champion, was eliminated from the Australian Open on Thursday when Estonian unseed Kaia Kanepi beat her 6-3, 6-2.
Kenin’s defeat in the second round was the first big surprise of the tournament. Kenin, the number 4, was WTA Player of the Year in 2020 when she won the Australian Open in February and made the French Open final in October.
However, she has struggled to find her shape this year. She lost in the quarter-finals of the Abu Dhabi Open in January and lost the third set 6-0 against Maria Sakkari from Greece.
“She obviously played well,” said Kenin on Thursday as tears came to her eyes during a post-game press conference. “I was obviously way too nervous.” A moderator offered her a handkerchief, which she refused.
Kenin, a 22-year-old American, was never in the game against Kanepi, who is 35 and likely at the end of her career on Thursday. Kanepi was physically impressive at 5-foot-11, overpowering Kenin with 10 aces, and also causing her to make too many unusual mistakes. Kanepi finished the match with two aces.
“I served well and that helped me a lot,” said Kanepi after the game they played in damp 90-degree weather. “My plan was to play aggressively.”
Kenin was expressionless as she packed her bags and hurried from the seat. It was the second defeat in 24 hours for the American who lost a tough double against a tiebreaker in the third set on Wednesday with her partner Belinda Bencic from Switzerland.
An hour after her loss on Thursday, Kenin couldn’t explain where her game and the fearlessness she had sometimes displayed had gone.
“I really don’t know what I’m doing right now,” she said. “I’m not there 100 percent, my game, physically, mentally.”
The numbers told the story of the game. Kenin has made 22 unforced mistakes and none of her seven break point opportunities.
The WTA Tour will host a tournament for women who lost in the first week of the Australian Open starting Saturday, and another tournament later this month in Adelaide. Kenin said she hadn’t made up her mind whether to attend these events or leave Australia.
Despite her success, Kenin has existed relatively under the radar compared to other young stars in women’s tennis, including Naomi Osaka and even 16-year-old American Coco Gauff, who has not yet reached the Grand Slam quarter-finals.
Kenin arguably had a better 2020 than Osaka and Simona Halep from Romania, but unlike those stars, she wasn’t invited to an exhibition event in Adelaide last month before coming to Melbourne. Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion, and Ashleigh Barty from Australia, number 1 in the world, also attended the Adelaide exhibition.
And while Kenin was dying to come to Australia and repeat himself as champion, her performance will now be another sign of her inconsistency.
Before she won the Australian Open last year, Kenin had to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam in eleven attempts. Then she went all the way. After the long break from tennis last spring and summer, she was number 2 at the US Open in September, but was beaten in the fourth round by Elise Mertens from Belgium, number 16.
She lost 6-0, 6-0 to Victoria Azarenka in Rome ahead of the French Open, then went to Paris and reached the final where she lost in straight sets to Iga Swiatek, who was the 54th player in the previous tournament.
When she got to the Australian Open, she said she felt tremendous pressure to defend her championship, although it may have been internal rather than external.
Women’s tennis is tremendously deep right now, and Grand Slam championships are now like everyone else. Only two women, Osaka and Halep, have won more than one Grand Slam since 2017.
“There are no easy matches in a tour event, a slam, anything,” said Barty, the top seed here. “I think every time you go out on the court you have to try to bring your best tennis to keep up with everyone.”