Sunday, July 24, 2016

Kenin, 17, hopes to rocket to vicinity of Venus

Sofia Kenin, above, will face Grace Min in
an all-American final in the FSP Gold River
Women's Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman 
   GOLD RIVER, Calif. -- Sofia Kenin is unlikely to reach the heights of Venus Williams -- literally and figuratively.
   Kenin could, however, succeed Williams as a U.S. tennis star. They will play a 2 1/2-hour drive apart today in Northern California finals.
   The 36-year-old Williams will seek her 50th career singles title at the top level of women's tennis in the Bank of the West Classic, where she made her WTA tour debut 22 years ago, this afternoon at Stanford in the San Francisco Bay Area.
   In the evening, the 17-year-old Kenin will try to win her second ITF (minor-league) singles crown in the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger at the Gold River Racquet Club in the Sacramento region.  
   The top three Americans in the world rankings are No. 1 Serena Williams, who will turn 35 in September; No. 7 Venus Williams; and No. 11 Madison Keys, who's 21.
   "There's such good players, and I have so much respect for them," said the unseeded Kenin, who will meet second-seeded Grace Min for the first time in an all-American final after today's 5 p.m. doubles title match (live streaming at usta.com). "It would be really good for the U.S. to have another player. My friends and I are trying to battle and get to the top. I look up to a lot of those Americans, and I really want to be in a position like them."
   Kenin's idol, though, is Maria Sharapova.
   "She's such a great fighter; she fights for every ball," explained Kenin, who won the USTA Girls 18 National Championships last summer to earn an automatic berth in the main draw of the U.S. Open (losing to Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia in the first round). "I really like her game. She's got the big serve, she's aggressive, and that's how I want to play -- aggressive. I feel like her game matches well with mine."
   Like Sharapova, Kenin was born in Russia and moved to Florida. Kenin, however, came as a baby with her family and plays for the United States. Sharapova arrived at age 9 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and competes for Russia.
   The big difference between Sharapova, who is serving a two-year suspension for using meldonium after it was banned as of Jan. 1, is height. The 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) Sharapova, who owns a career Grand Slam in singles and five major singles titles overall, is eight inches (20.3 centimeters) taller than Kenin.
   Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, is 6-foot-1 (1.85 meters).
   Still, Kenin has pop on her serve and laser groundstrokes on both sides. She also has a strong return of serve and good form at the net. In short, the Pembroke Pines, Fla., resident is supremely gifted.
Second-seeded Grace Min, shown Saturday,
saved two match points in the second round
in Gold River. Photo by Paul Bauman
   But Kenin, an amateur ranked No. 332 in the world among women (up from No. 620 at the end of last year) and No. 10 in the juniors, said her biggest strength is "just the fact that I'm fighting on court, and I see the game really well. When I'm playing well, I feel like I'm attacking."
   Kenin's competitiveness was evident in her 6-4, 6-4 semifinal victory over qualifier Valeria Solovyeva of Russia in 100-degree (37.8 Celsius) heat. Serving for the match for the second time, Kenin overcame a 0-40 deficit and saved a fourth break point with a service winner. Solovyeva then slugged two consecutive backhands long to end the match.
   "I have to give her credit," said Solovyeva, a semifinalist in the inaugural 2012 Gold River Challenger at 19 who returned in May from knee surgery. "She played a really good, solid match. She was tough today out there. Definitely, she was fresher, but it's part of the game. I had to play through qualies, so that's how it is."          
   Min, a compact 5-foot-4 (1.63 meters), led eighth-seeded Sabina Sharipova of Uzbekistan 6-0, 3-0 in the first semifinal when the 21-year-old Sharipova retired with nausea.
   Sharipova, on the verge of tears, later said she began feeling sick after her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Elizaveta Ianchuk of Ukraine on Friday afternoon in 95-degree (35.0 Celsius) heat.
   Min, 22, of Boca Raton, Fla., saved two match points in her second-round victory over Dutch veteran Michaella Krajicek, a former top-30 player. Min then routed her doubles partner, former Stanford star Kristie Ahn, 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
   "With each match, I've been getting better, and that's been the most positive for this week," said Min, who's ranked No. 158 after cracking the top 100 in March 2015.
   Both Min and Kenin have extra incentive in the final. The winner will take the lead in the U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge. The American who earns the most points in two of the three participating tournaments -- Stockton, Sacramento and Lexington, Ky., in consecutive weeks -- will receive a wild card into the U.S. Open, Aug. 29-Sept. 11 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
   Kenin will attempt to become the second 17-year-old in the five-year history of the Sacramento Challenger to win the title. Mayo Hibi, a longtime resident of Irvine, Calif., who plays for her native Japan, defeated an ill Madison Brengle in the 2013 final.
   Hibi, 5-foot-5 (1.65 meters) and 121 pounds (55 kilograms), then skipped college and turned pro. She is now ranked No. 205.
   This will be the second all-American final in the Sacramento Challenger. Maria Sanchez, who was born and raised in nearby Modesto, defeated Jessica Pegula, whose parents own the NFL's Buffalo Bills and NHL's Buffalo Sabres, in the inaugural tournament in 2012.
   Here are links to the singles and doubles draws and today's schedule.

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