Tennis is a game of mental toughness. Or as Billie Jean King, the former world number one professional tennis player and winner of 39 Grand Slams, put it, “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.”
Into that atmosphere steps Moscow-born, Florida-bred Sonya “Sofia” Kenin, whose discipline, focus, feistiness, and competitive spirit combine to make the next great champion.
At 21 years old (she turns 22 this month), Kenin is the fourth-ranked Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) player in the world. In the U.S., she is ranked number one—ahead of Serena Williams. On February 1, Kenin won the Australian Open Women’s Championship in Melbourne Park, Australia, making her the youngest American to win a Grand Slam women’s singles title since Williams did it in 1999. A month later (before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic), Kenin won her fifth WTA singles title at the Lyon Open in France.
Last year—after winning multiple singles and doubles tournaments and earning a top 20 ranking—the plucky pro was named the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year. “I have so much excitement before a tournament,” says Kenin, who admits she is hard on herself. “I do have nerves. I have to do well. I want to win. I need to win.”
Kenin was 3 years old when her father saw the early hints of her tennis talents. “I was watching my daughter play tennis against a garage door,” says dad and coach Alex Kenin. “I noticed that she had unusual hand-eye coordination, so I took her to a park for more play and discovered that she was better than most of the others.” By her fifth birthday, Kenin’s family had moved from Moscow to New York to Pembroke Pines—where the tennis prodigy easily took to figuring out her dad’s tennis racket by hitting a torrent of tennis balls.
Her father introduced her to tennis legend Rick Macci, who has coached Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova, and other notable stars of the sport. Macci coached Kenin for the next seven years—from age 5 to 12—seeing her a few times a week. Alex, a self-taught coach, worked with her the other days.
“I never taught kids that young back then,” says Macci, owner of the Rick Macci Academy and Tennis Center in Boca Raton. “But Sonya was unique and uncanny. She could just focus, and eventually had a backswing to South Beach! The way she timed the ball, she already had rhythm. She was the scariest little creature I ever saw.”
At age seven, Kenin’s tennis life began to take shape. She developed a fierce drop shot—hitting the ball softly so it lands just over and close to the net—which Macci calls “one of the best” on the pro tour. “She likes to trick her opponent like a point guard in basketball,” Macci says. “She can do this 10 to 15 times in a match. She knows and understands the geometry of the court.”
By 2005, Kenin began playing in singles tournaments in the United States Tennis Association (USTA)’s Girls 10-and-under division. In less than 18 months, she was ranked number one in Florida—a ranking she repeated in the USTA National Girls 12, 14, 16, and 18-and-under divisions. She won tournament after tournament, including multiple Super National Junior Tournaments and excelled in international competition.
“I loved playing, I enjoyed all of it,” says Kenin, who was lucky to be able to hit balls early in her career with the likes of Anna Kournikova, Jim Courier, Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, and John McEnroe. “I liked the process and wanted to go pro. I was excited about living the American Dream.”
Under Macci’s tutelage, Kenin appeared in tennis training videos and showcased her skills at conventions and exhibitions. Her former coach says some were skeptical about his enthusiasm for this young girl who—at first glance—didn’t really stand out. “People said, ‘No way—she is too little,’” Macci recalls. “But when they saw how talented she was, the way she competed, her focus, her timing, her ability to go for the jugular, they changed their minds.”
These days, Alex is Kenin’s sole coach. Despite the dad-daughter dynamic, Kenin says her dad is “super smart,” always generating ideas, and solving problems. “My dad always travels with me and helps me mentally,” she says.
For Alex, what is equally as important as building upon his daughter’s tennis skills is his role in helping her develop a solid foundation that keeps both her talent and personal growth under control. “Coaching your daughter can be tricky,” he says. “Often I have to draw the line. But as she has gotten older, we have found a balance.”
That balance includes education. During her school years, Kenin did a combination of in-class and at-home schooling. But as the road trips increased, a by-the-bell school schedule became impossible to keep up with. “We kept her in school as long as possible,” says Alex. “But tournaments took her away, and it was tough to fit in her learning. So we did it at home, which worked out well.”
In 2013, Kenin started playing low-level tournaments on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) circuit and won her first two professional matches at age 14. She finished the 2017 season ranked 108 in the world. Then 2018 came, and with it her best season yet: ending with an impressive ranking of 52, her first top 100 finish.
By the time she won the Australian Open earlier this year, fans from around the world were glued to her every move and were eager for her autograph. “I was speechless and happy, there was so much emotion that day,” Kenin says of the win. “I watched my idols play and the whole crowd was cheering. I had butterflies. I love my fans, they boost me, they cheered for me.”
Even Billie Jean King—who calls Kenin “fearless”—texted her during the Australian Open. The two women had met during the 2019 off-season when they were in New York for the filming of “Thank You Notes,” a Katie Couric-produced web series that matches an established icon with a rising star in the same sport or business.
“Billie Jean inspires me so much. She has given me great advice, and even explained how to best deal with pressure,” says Kenin, who wrote her a personal thank you note on behalf of women tennis players everywhere. “She has been really encouraging. I look up to her.”
Says King: “Sofia is a strong, kind, and confident player who is coming into her own. She definitely has the makings of a champion and has already shown she can win. She is a great competitor and is mentally and emotionally tough. She thrives on pressure and is willing to pay the price in both preparation and execution of her game plan. She is very intense, focused, and never out of a match because she knows how to finish.”
Kenin takes that kind of praise to heart. In the little time that she spends at home in Pembroke Pines, her schedule remains disciplined. She practices tennis five out of seven days per week—often twice a day—and keeps a strict fitness regimen of strength conditioning, stretching, and sprints.
If there is a match in South Florida, she goes to bed early. Otherwise, she gives herself until 10 p.m. on weekends. When she’s on the road with Alex, Kenin says she misses her mom, Lena, and her sister, Anya. And as much as Lena loves and admires her daughter, she doesn’t watch her matches on TV. “My mom is too nervous,” Kenin admits. “She doesn’t watch me play at all.”
On the off-night when tennis is not the number one priority, Kenin is just like any other 20-something—preferring to lay in bed and watch Netflix. She also loves movies, music (especially the rapper Drake), posting on her Instagram account, hanging with friends and her sister, going to the beach, shopping, and traveling.
But with her career on fire at the moment, there are more days on than off right now. And Kenin is okay with that. In fact, her advice for other tennis players is to be inflexible in their dedication to the sport. For those who want to excel, she believes they must “love it, enjoy the battle, stick to it, ignore the negativity,” and be the best possible player so their dreams can come true.
“Sonya is stubborn, has backbone, and is ferociously competitive,” says Macci. “She knows how to compete, and I think she will rise to the top. She is already a better role model than any other American player.”