Sofia Kenin, defending champion at the Australian Open, has been knocked out in the second round. She was defeated by 35-year-old Kaia Kanepi 6-3 6-2, a veteran who is experiencing a new lease of life in her career after reaching the final at last week’s Gippsland Trophy. Kanepi was swinging freely, hitting 22 winners and crushing 10 aces on serve, preventing Kenin from settling herself throughout.
Conversely, Kenin was struggling to extend the rallies, finding only 10 winners to 22 unforced errors. Her usually impeccable timing was clearly off – likely because Kenin had been feeling tight in the lead-up to the match.
Kenin admitted that she had been feeling nervous on the court in a teary-eyed press conference. “It’s the outside pressure… obviously I felt really nervous.” She had been feeling the same way in her first-round match against Maddison Inglis. Inglis was playing only her fourth WTA-Tour level match, yet Kenin struggled to control her nerves in this match too. She chalks it down to the pressure of defending a major title.
“I don’t know I guess, I guess last year I won and then everyone’s expecting me to do that, it’s obviously tough… the nerves, big time, got to me.”
Kenin is likely not the first player in recent times to feel nervous defending her title. Not since 2016 Wimbledon has a defending champion made it passed the quarterfinals of their title defence when Serena Williams defeated Angelique Kerber in the final. But she will be disappointed to be leaving quite as early as she did. Her exit as early as the second round has not been seen at the Australian Open for 18 years when, in 2003, defending champion Jennifer Capriati lost to Marlene Weingärtner in the first round.
Whilst Kenin was nervous about being the defending champion, Kanepi was nervous about playing the defending champion.
“I was nervous too. I had to calm myself down…”
Kanepi dealt with her nerves better than her less experienced opponent by serving well and keeping the points short. She has beaten a top-10 player 13 times in her career so this was not unfamiliar territory for her, though it was the first time she had beaten a defending champion at a major.
Though Kanepi assured the press she was not thinking about it, the Australian Open is the only Grand Slam where she has not reached the quarterfinals. Her next opponent, Donna Vekic, has a similarly aggressive game so their match could go down to the wire. If she progresses through the third round, Jennifer Brady will likely lie in wait – the American posses a huge baseline game, so this could be Kanepi’s toughest match of the tournament. If she is to make it to the quarterfinals, she will have to continue to serve well given how quick the courts are this year.
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