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Sofia Kenin is the young American gun nobody saw coming

February 03, 2020
2020 Australian Open - Day 13

Clive Brunskill

Coco Gauff is 15 years old, and already beating grand slam champions. Sloane Stephens was 24 when she won the U.S. Open. Madison Keys is still only 24. Amanda Anisimova, who lit up the French Open last year, is 18. Taylor Townsend, the serve-and-volleyer who took down Simona Halep at Flushing Meadows, is 24.

All of them have received their fair share of attention, and rightly so—American women's tennis is in a relatively good place, even if we haven't seen the emergence of stars on the level of the Williams sisters quite yet...a bar so high it's dizzying. Among the youth movement, though, Sofia Kenin was the dark horse that the mainstream couldn't quite predict. It's not for a lack of record; in fact, Kenin was a top junior with plenty of hype, and she won three times on the WTA as a 20-year-old last year. It's more her personality and her game, which are understated, consistent, and grounded by one of the toughest competitive personalities we've seen in America since Serena.

The match I'll remember from her Australian Open wonder-run that yielded her first grand slam title this past weekend came against Ash Barty, the beloved native daughter and world no. 1, in the semifinals. Barty is incredibly tough herself, and the match took on a war-of-attrition feel in the brutal Aussie heat. Not only did Kenin have the entire crowd against her, but she faced a set point on Barty's serve in the first set tiebreaker. Watch the backhand return she summoned then, at the 15-second mark here:

Keep watching, and you'll see she went on to survive two set points in the next set, also on Barty's serve, before breaking her at 4-5, and then finishing the job on Barty's next service game:

It was a beautiful performance under extreme duress, and the championship, when she overcame a lost first set to roll past two-time grand slam champ Garbine Muguruza, was almost as impressive—full of wild comebacks in the third set, including a 0-40 reversal at 2-all that seemed to break her opponent. Women's tennis is in a chaotic period, with first time champs following first time champs at slam after slam, but the way Kenin played shows that she's a permanent threat who will not be content to stop at one slam.

Stupid, Useless Statistic of the Week: Sofia Kenin's Global Domination

While looking at the women's singles draw at the Aussie, I noticed something a little weird: Sofia Kenin defeated players from five continents. In order, by continent, her victories went: Europe, North America, Asia, North America, Africa, Oceania, Europe. All she was missing was South America, and as Jon Wertheim pointed out when I mentioned him on Twitter, Muguruza was born in South America. So I have to ask: Has anyone ever done this before?

I emphasize the word "ask," because there's no way in hell I'm looking this up. Somebody else can do that, or not. But if I had my guess, I bet Kenin just bagged the most victories over the most continents in a single tournament in tennis history. Meaningless, sure, but also kinda cool.

But mostly meaningless.

The "Striking a Blow For Men of Normal Height" Team of the Week: Houston Rockets

I love this story—for the first time since 1963, the Houston Rockets played an entire game without a player above 6'6" stepping on the court. The '63 game was between the New York Knicks and the Chicago...Zephyrs. That's not a joke! There was a team called the Chicago Zephyrs in the NBA, and here's how the franchise progression went: Chicago Packers-->Chicago Zephyrs-->Baltimore Bullets-->Capital Bullets-->Washington Bullets-->Washington Wizards.

Sorry, I got distracted...the point is, with 6'10" center Clint Capela dealing with a foot injury, the Rockets are Small Ball Central, and will probably do it at least once more. Mike D'Antoni opted to keep 7-footers Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein on the bench against the Mavericks, and they won 128-121. They won their previous game against the Jazz, too, when it was all 6'6" and under except for Hartenstein's six minutes. Just look at these mobile little tykes!

As a fellow of modest height, just past the 6'0" mark, I find this gratifying, and I think the heights should keep coming down in the NBA. James Harden is the most annoying player in the league, but I'll root for the Rockets now. If they win a title playing extreme small ball, it won't be long until a team of people just like me control the NBA. plus athleticism and skill and work ethic and youth and probably a couple inches too. But otherwise, basically my clones.

The Mind-Blowing Basket of the Week: Zion Williamson

Someone described this to me as "Zion finished a lob last night where he caught the ball behind the backboard and brought it back in front," and even that description didn't do it justice. Watch this:

That is...not human.

"The Cool Tradition That Needs to Be More Common" of the Week: Jersey Exchanges

No. 1 pick Zion Williamson met no. 2 pick Ja Morant on the court for the first time, and the highlights are worth watching here, but what I really loved came after the game, when they swapped jerseys:

So classy! If I played in the NBA I'd do this after every game, and start a museum with all the jerseys. And the fact that I'm thinking about something like this is just one of many reasons why I'm not in the NBA.