Sunday, July 22, 2018

Kenin, 19, conquers Gibbs for $60K Berkeley title

The Stadium Court at the Berkeley Tennis Club is shown early in the week
with the Claremont Club & Spa in the background. Photo by Paul Bauman
   BERKELEY, Calif. -- After reaching her first WTA tour semifinal in Mallorca on grass and advancing to the second round at Wimbledon for the first time, Sofia Kenin easily could have suffered a letdown in the inaugural $60,000 Berkeley Tennis Club Challenge.
   But that's not her style. Put her on a court, and she's ready for battle. After all, she has Russian heritage.
Top-seeded Sofia Kenin, 19, right, beat
second-seeded Nicole Gibbs, an ex-Stanford
star, 6-0, 6-4 to win the inaugural Berkeley
Tennis Club Challenge. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "I think it helps me because Russians are determined and always fight," said the 19-year-old American, who was born in Moscow and speaks Russian with her father and coach, Alex. "I got that from my family."
   The top-seeded Kenin never lost a set in five Berkeley matches (although she played two tiebreakers), capping her run with a 6-0, 6-4 victory over second-seeded Nicole Gibbs, a 25-year-old former Stanford star, in 65 minutes today.
   "Obviously it's hard to adjust coming from Wimbledon where everything is so glorious and here it's not so much," said Kenin, who beat No. 6 Caroline Garcia of France in Mallorca for her first win over a top-10 player. "But I like the site; I like playing here."
   The Berkeley Tennis Club has a rich history of its own. It was founded in 1906, and past members include International Tennis Hall of Famers Don Budge, Helen Wills Moody, Helen Jacobs and Hazel Wightman. Plaques in their honor adorn the interior and exterior of the clubhouse.
   Hall of Famers Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Billie Jean King have played at the Berkeley Tennis Club, and King is an honorary lifetime member. The USTA Girls 18 National Championships were held there until the tournament moved in 2010 to its current site in San Diego.
   Kenin, who has piercing blue eyes and also goes by "Sonya," won a Northern California Challenger for the third consecutive year, following Sacramento ($50,000) in 2016 and Stockton ($60,000) last summer. Her only other title in a professional tournament came in Wesley Chapel, Fla. ($25,000) on clay in 2016.
   Kenin, who will remain about No. 64 in Monday's updated rankings, does not plan to play any more Challengers.
   "As of now, I don't really think so," she said. "I wasn't supposed to play this one. We just decided to get some match play."
   Kenin said she would fly back home to Pembroke Pines, Fla., in the Miami area tonight and return to the San Francisco Bay Area for the inaugural Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, July 30-Aug. 5 at San Jose State.
Sofia Kenin won a Northern California Challenger
for the third year in a row. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Kenin easily is ranked high enough to play in the main draw of the U.S. Open, Aug. 27-Sept. 9 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for the fourth straight year. She reached the third round there last year, losing to her idol, Maria Sharapova, 7-5, 6-2 in a late-night match at 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium. Kenin then turned pro so she could keep her $144,000 prize money.
   "I'm already in the middle of the (entry list), which takes a lot of pressure off instead of playing three tournaments for the wild card," said Kenin, who earned $9,119 for the Berkeley title.
   Kenin hopes to move to New York and then California.
   "I have to make a lot of money to get there," she cautioned. "I love Manhattan. It's so nice. It has the best restaurants and the best shops in the world. I love big shops."
   Kenin -- among a group of teenage U.S. prospects that also includes CiCi Bellis (19), Ashley Kratzer (19), Caroline Dolehide (19), Claire Liu (18), Kayla Day (18), Amanda Anisimova (16), Whitney Osuigwe (16) and Cori Gauff (14) -- is well on her way.
   Kenin's goal is to crack the top 50 by the end of the year. Gibbs isn't betting against her.
   "She's a good tennis player," said Gibbs, who took home $4,863. "I don't see any reason she won't be top 20 (eventually)."
   In addition to tenacity, Kenin has "a killer (two-handed) backhand," according to Gibbs, and a phenomenal drop shot. The 5-foot-7 (1.70-meter) Kenin's serve, although not a big weapon, and forehand aren't exactly shabby, either.
   Asked if she's ever played anyone with a better drop shot, Gibbs declared with a laugh: "Nope. She has an unbelievable drop shot. I knew it was coming, and I still couldn't cover it today."
Nicole Gibbs said she encountered "a perfect storm" in the
final. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Gibbs hadn't lost a set in the tournament -- she won the doubles title with Asia Muhammad on Saturday -- entering the singles final. That changed in a hurry as Kenin, ripping service returns and groundstrokes, blitzed Gibbs in 18 minutes in the opening set of their first career meeting.
   When Kenin also broke serve, on a forehand cross-court winner, to open the second set, it looked bleak for Gibbs. But she broke right back when Kenin -- looking mortal, after all -- netted a down-the-line backhand. That prompted Gibbs to raise her palms, as if to say, "Finally."
   The crowd of about 200 enthusiastic fans on another beautiful day strongly backed Gibbs, either because she played at nearby Stanford or it wanted a competitive match or both.
   After the players traded breaks again for 3-3, Kenin scored the decisive break. From 30-30, she floated yet another feathery drop shot for a winner, and Gibbs sailed a forehand long, causing her to scream in frustration.
   Gibbs held for 4-5, saving one match point, but Kenin earned three more match points at 40-0 in the next game. Kenin netted a backhand on the first one but converted the second one.
   The 5-foot-6 (1.68-meter) Gibbs lost her serve six of eight times and won only 26 percent of the points on her second serve (6 of 23).
   Asked if Kenin was just too good in the final, Gibbs replied with a laugh: "Yeah, and I was too bad. It was a perfect storm a little bit. She played really well and took me off my game. I just didn't have nearly the consistency I had earlier this week. The ball felt like it was flying a little bit off my racket today. I'm not sure if it was the conditions or I just wasn't adjusting with my feet. She certainly played really well to take it away from me, but I also gave her a lot of points that I didn't need to give her.
Plaques honoring Hall of Famers Don Budge, left, and Helen
Wills Moody adorn a wall at the Berkeley Tennis Club. Budge
and Wills Moody are past members. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "Everything was kind of a struggle today. I felt a little bit out of sorts, and part of that is credit to your opponent. She was taking my serve really early, even off the first serve, so I felt like I had to do more, and I just didn't execute."
   Gibbs also complained of "normal finals nerves. I didn't sleep great last night. It is what it is. It's part of the game."
   Gibbs, who reached a career-high No. 68 two years ago, will rise from No. 116 to about No. 105. She plans to train at home in Venice in the Los Angeles area next week, then play in San Jose.
   "I think I'm four (spots) out of the main draw, so it's probably 50-50 whether I'll have to qualify," she said.
   The tournament replaces the Bank of the West Classic, which ended a 21-year run at Stanford last year.
   "I'm bummed that it's not at Stanford, but it is what it is, and I'm looking forward to coming back up next week."
   Here are the complete Berkeley singles and doubles draws.

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