Throughout the Australian Open, Rick Macci has been exchanging text messages with Alexander Kenin, whose daughter, Sofia Kenin, has become the tournament’s breakout star.
Macci, a veteran tennis coach who’s worked with numerous top players, has known the Kenin family for a long time. In fact, he first worked with Sofia Kenin when she was five years old, shortly after her family moved to the U.S. from Russia.
Now 21, Kenin competes in the women’s singles final on Saturday against Garbine Muguruza. Kenin, the No. 14 seed, had never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam event until this week. But if she wins, she will join Sloane Stephens, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Venus, and Serena Williams as the only American women to win a Grand Slam title in the past two decades.
It would be quite an accomplishment, but also one that has seemed inevitable, at least to Kenin and those close to her.
“She expected this,” Macci said. “I think (her father) expected it. I expected it. This doesn’t surprise me. She’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t win.”
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Macci has anticipated big things from Kenin from the moment he saw her hit 16 years ago. She had traveled 40 miles from her family’s home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., to Macci’s tennis academy in Boca Raton, Fla. Macci was already a well-known name in tennis circles who had coached the Williams sisters, Capriati, Anna Kournikova, and Andy Roddick when they were young. None of them stood out like Kenin.
“The first day, the first minute I started feeding her balls I knew there was something special,” Macci said. “After the first lesson, I said, ‘This is the scariest little creature I’ve ever taught.’”
Kenin soon was being hailed as a potential star, especially near her home in South Florida. When she was 7, she played in an exhibition mixed-doubles match with former world No. 1 Jim Courier against Venus Williams and Todd Martin, a longtime ATP Tour veteran. That same year, Kenin was featured in a video hitting groundstrokes and getting interviewed by Dave Kozlowski, a longtime tennis coach. Kenin reveals she was practicing three hours per day and her favorite player was Roddick.
“Here’s a rising star that wants to be a tennis pro,” Kozlowski says in the video. “Why do you want to be a tennis pro?”
“Because I want to be a champion and I want to be number one in the world,” Kenin replies.
Macci was impressed with Kenin’s knowledge of the sport at a young age, hand-eye coordination and focus, which reminded him of former world No. 1 Martina Hingis. But it was her competitiveness when playing older male players that caught his attention most.
“Every time she lost, she’d say, ‘Rick, can I play him tomorrow?,” Macci said. “It was hilarious. She was just a brutal, brutal competitor. Her thirst for competition was like no other. Everybody’s competitive, or they wouldn’t be doing a sport. But it was like Jordan, LeBron.”
Kenin stopped working with Macci when she was 12, and her father became her full-time coach, but Macci has remained close with the family. He saw her fulfill some of her promise as a junior player, when Kenin won the prestigious 18-and-under Orange Bowl title in December 2014 and the USTA girls national title in August 2015. The following month, she lost in the final of the U.S. Open’s girls singles event.
Kenin played a few professional tournaments, as well, but she didn’t start competing for full-time on the WTA Tour until 2018 when she rose to as high as No. 48 in the rankings. Last year, she was named the tour’s most improved player after winning three singles titles and finishing 14th in the rankings, trailing only Serena Williams among American women.
This year, Kenin lost in the round of 16 in her first two tournaments, but she’s turned it on during the Australian Open. She didn’t face a seeded player until the semifinals on Thursday when she upset No. 1 Ashleigh Barty 7-6, 7-5. On Saturday, Kenin faces Muguruza, who is unseeded but is a former world No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam singles champion.
“If you talk to anyone in tennis, it’s probably in their eyes been a meteoric rise to get where she’s at right now,” Macci said. “They’re probably going to think this has happened very quickly, but this has been very methodical. Once you start getting confidence and prove it to yourself, it’s lights out.”
Recently, Kenin spent some time at Macci’s tennis academy in Boca Raton, where she practices and meets with trainers and massage therapists. Macci and Kenin had a long conversation, just like they’ve done since she was a young girl.
“I just said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to take care of your body and stay away from injuries and you’re on your way,’” Macci said. “I said, ‘What’s the next step?’ She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘To be number one in the world.’