Kenin, Muguruza Roll Into Australian Open Final

MELBOURNE, January 30, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been 40 long years since an Australian woman reached the final of the Australian Open. No Australian woman has lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the trophy presented each year to the winner of the women’s singles, since Chris O’Neil in 1978. Back then, few of the top international players trekked to Australia to compete in the event.

This year, Australia had high hopes for Ashleigh Barty, just 23, of breaking the drought and playing for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on Saturday evening. Australia will have to wait at least another year. That’s because first-time Grand Slam semifinalist Sofia Kenin of the United States played spoiler and beat The World No. 1 from Ipswich, Queensland, 7-6 (6), 7-5, on Rod Laver Arena Thursday afternoon under extreme heat with temperatures soaring to 100º F (38º C).

Kenin, seeded 14th, battled the crowd and some early nervousness, then saved two set points in each set en route to her upset victory over Barty that took one hour and 45 minutes. Next, she will face unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who defeated No. 4 seed Simona Halep from Romania, 7-6 (8), 7-5, in the second semifinal. It will be Kenin’s first major final.

“I believed I could win even though I had two set points down in the first and second,” Kenin, 21, the daughter of Russian immigrants, said during her post-match press conference. “I could literally feel, I was telling myself, I believe in myself. If I lose the set, I’m still going to come out and believe. Yeah, I really did a great job with it. I didn’t give up.“

Kenin, who trailed 4-1 in her career head-to-head with Barty, overcame 25 unforced errors – including 16 of them in the opening set – and hit 16 winners. Although Barty hit 33 winners, she also committed 36 unforced errors. As Kenin’s done all fortnight, she attacked with her powerful ground strokes and counterpunching style. It kept Barty uncomfortable and on the defensive. It didn’t seem to phase Kenin that she was facing the World No. 1, something she’s done five times.

“I knew it was a touch match. Of course, some things didn’t go my way with the challenges and some great shots she came up with. But I didn’t let that stop me. Yeah, I was fighting. I left everything out all on the court, so it paid off.”

Barty, the first Australian to even reach the singles quarterfinals twice since the Australian Open moved to Melbourne Park 33 years ago – a decade before she was born – had embraced the spotlight as the home favorite headliner Down Under. She had won nine matches in a row and five titles in the past 10 months, including her first major at last year’s French Open. Barty finished 2019 as the year-end No. 1, a first for an Australian woman. She was looking to become the first Australian woman to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull in 1980.

Fiercely competitive on the court while affable and honest off of it, Barty accepted her error-prone defeat. She called her loss to Kenin “disappointing” but said: “It’s been a hell of a summer. I mean, if you would have told me three weeks ago that we would have won a tournament in Adelaide, made the semifinals of the Australian Open, I’d take that absolutely every single day of the week. 

“I put myself in a position to win the match today and just didn’t play the biggest points well enough to be able to win. I have to give credit where credit’s due. Sofia came out and played aggressively on those points and deserved to win.”

Muguruza reaches first Australian Open final

Meanwhile, in Thursday’s other semifinal, No. 32 Garbiñe Muguruza came into her match with World No. 3 Simona Halep holding a 3-2 career head-to-head advantage. All three of those victories came on hard courts. In a battle between the two two-time Grand Slam champions – each having won the French Open and Wimbledon – it was the Venezuelan-born Spaniard Muguruza who showed peak form in winning, 7-6 (8), 7-5, in two hours and five minutes.

Muguruza’s victory advanced her to her fourth Grand Slam final of her career – and it’s her first Australian Open final.

Despite making 44 unforced errors, Muguruza gutted out 10 service aces and 39 winners overall against the always-tough Halep. The Romanian, who won her only previous Australian Open semifinal back in 2018, hit 20 winners and 23 unforced errors. Muguruza outpointed Halep 90-87.

“I had a tough opponent,” said Muguruza after her victory. “I knew it was going to be a tough semifinal against Simona. She’s a very good player. Every time we played, it was very physical, long-matches. I knew it was going to be a very hot day.”

Like the first seminal, the late-afternoon temperature remained about 100º F (38º C), which made for grueling conditions on the Rod Laver Arena court surface. However, Muguruza made the most of her opportunities against Halep. Now, she’s 11-1 in 2020 and her run in Melbourne will lift her back into the WTA Top 20 next week.

As for Halep, who will return to No. 2 in the rankings, she said: “I think maybe I could be a little more brave in the points that were important. 

“(Muguruza) served very well in the important moments. My return was not great today. I think it was a good match for both of us, but she was stronger in the end. In the important moments she played a little more braver. …

“I’m in pain now, I have to admit. But life is going on.”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s final, Muguruza said: “I think (Kenin is) playing great. I think since a while she’s just progressing up in the rankings and in the results. So, I think she deserves to be in the final with the tennis she has been showing. …

“It’s going to be a hard match. It’s the final of a Grand Slam. Doesn’t matter who is your opponent.”

Hsieh rises to doubles World No. 1

When the WTA Rankings are updated on Monday following the Australian Open, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei will overtake the current No. 1 Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, her regular doubles partner.

Beginning with their first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon last summer, Hsieh and Strycova have won five titles together over the past year. They reached the championship final at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen and began the current season by winning the title at the Brisbane International.

Hsieh and Strycova, the No. 1 seeds in the Australian Open, will face No. 2 seeds and 2018 champions Timea Babos from Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France for the title on Friday.

“It’s always so amazing to be back here, because my first semifinal in a junior Grand Slam was here,” Hsieh said Wednesday, quoted by the WTA Tour website, “so (I’d like to) thank Barbora for bringing me back again.”

What they’re saying

Dominic Thiem, 26, who faces 22-year-old Alexander Zverev in the men’s semifinals Friday on breaking through The Big Three’s dominance: “To really break a barrier, one young player has to win a Slam, and yeah, one of us is going to be in the finals, but it’s still a very long way to go.”

Sofia Kenin on reaching her first Grand Slam final: “First I’m just going to be enjoying the moment. You don’t experience this so often. Of course, I’m going to enjoy it. This is so exciting. Literally butterflies.“

By the numbers

• Thursday’s attendance during Day 11 of the Australian Open reached 37,920, which included 19,414 for the day session featuring the women’s singles semifinals and 18,506 for the night session, which was highlighted by the Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer men’s semifinal.

• Men’s No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem has multiple victories over all of the Big Three – Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic and Roger Federer – and has beaten Nadal four times on his preferred surface of clay. When Thiem beat Nadal in four sets during Wednesday night’s quarterfinal round  – three of them decided by tiebreakers – it was his first victory over the World No. 1 in a Grand Slam tournament after losing to him in the last two French Open finals.