Defending champion Sofia Kenin overcomes struggles to advance at Australian Open

Sofia Kenin makes a forehand return during her victory over Maddison Inglis.
Sofia Kenin makes a forehand return during her victory over Maddison Inglis in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday.
(Rick Rycroft / Associated Press)

Sure, Sofia Kenin struggled in her first match as a defending champion at a Grand Slam tournament.

The 22-year-old from Florida struggled with jitters at the Australian Open. Struggled with her shots. Struggled against an opponent who’s never won a tour-level match.

Kenin, though, knows all that really matters: Who can claim the final point. And, eventually, she managed to do just that Tuesday (Monday EST) at Melbourne Park, setting aside an early deficit and beating 133rd-ranked Australian wild-card entry Maddison Inglis 7-5, 6-4.


“I’m obviously not too happy with the way I played,” Kenin said with a chuckle, “but a win is a win.”

Inglis is still searching for one: She fell to 0-6 for her career.

Still, boosted by a crowd of locals at Rod Laver Arena, she did not make things easy on Kenin, who nevertheless managed to avoid becoming the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2003 to lose in the first round at the Australian Open a year after winning the championship.

Serena and Venus Williams win their opening-round matches at the Australian Open, as does U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka.

“First round, it’s obviously nerves for me,” said Kenin, who followed up her first major title last year by reaching the final at the French Open.

The woman Kenin defeated for the title in Melbourne, two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, also advanced to the second round, defeating Margarita Gasparyan of Russia 6-4, 6-0.

But Victoria Azarenka, a two-time title winner at the Australian Open and the runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open, appeared to have trouble breathing and received medical attention in the second set of a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Jessica Pegula of the U.S.

Azarenka didn’t want to discuss her health afterward, but she did note how difficult it was to prepare for a major tournament after being one of 72 players who were in a hard quarantine for two weeks — not allowed to leave their hotel rooms for any reason — after potentially being exposed to COVID-19 on her flight to Australia.

“The biggest impact for me personally has been not being able to have fresh air,” the 12th-seeded Azarenka said. “That really took a toll.”

Another player, Paula Badosa, lost in the first round after going through a three-week isolation because she tested positive for COVID-19.

The 23-year-old from Spain, who is ranked 70th, served for the match but dropped the last four games and was beaten 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-5 across more than 2 1/2 hours by Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova.

“It was tough for me to recover,” Badosa said.

Serena Williams isn’t the outright favorite to win the Australian Open, but the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the Grand Slam event into a wild card.

In other early results on Day 2 on a sunny day with the temperature in the low 70s Fahrenheit (low 20s Celsius), 17-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest man to win a Grand Slam match since Thanasi Kokkinakis was one day younger at the 2014 Australian Open.

And an even younger player, 16-year-old Coco Gauff, won 6-3, 6-2 against Jil Teichmann to set up a second-round showdown against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina.

Alcaraz eliminated Botic Van de Zandschulp, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands who is ranked 151st, by a score of 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.

A seeded woman exited the tournament when Ann Li, a 20-year-old American, defeat No. 31 Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-0 in just 47 minutes to improve to 5-0 this season.

Li is ranked 69th and competing in only her third career Grand Slam tournament.

She is coming off an unusual accomplishment at a tune-up tournament at Melbourne Park last week: Li shared the title of the Grampians Trophy with Anett Kontaveit because organizers decided not to hold a final so as not to wear out the players right before the Australian Open.

That warmup event was created for players who were in a hard lockdown last month.

For Kenin, her issues in the early going Tuesday resulted in an early break that led to her falling behind 3-1. Even after she got that back, how close was the opening set?

They players split the first 52 total points, each grabbing 26.

They split the first 10 total winners, each producing five.

But Kenin came through at crunch time.

In the second set, she went up an early break before finding herself even at 3-all, 30-all. A net-cord backhand gave Kenin a break point — she offered the usual “Sorry, not sorry,” raised hand — that was converted when Inglis pushed a groundstroke long.

There was one more tight moment. Serving for the victory at 5-4, Kenin faced a break point that she erased with a service winner at 88 mph (142 kph). Moments later, her first match point arrived — and she double-faulted it away.

She pushed a forehand wide on her second chance to close things. But on chance No. 3, a swinging backhand volley winner converted.