PARIS — For years, less-seasoned U.S. players readying themselves to face Serena Williams on the big stage have had to listen as the public-address announcer scrolls through her list of accomplishments during the warm-up. No one could blame them if it instantly put them on the back foot.
Williams has had overwhelming success against younger Americans, overall and specifically at Grand Slam events. One notable exception: her loss to Sloane Stephens in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinals.
But some qualities aren’t captured by analytics, and No. 35-ranked Sofia Kenin — who goes by Sonya — appears to be well along in the self-belief she needs to be competitive on an occasion like Saturday’s third-round French Open match against the 10th-seeded, literally peerless Williams, 17 years her senior. The match, last of the day on center court, will be their first meeting.
When 20-year-old Kenin peeked ahead in the Roland Garros draw, she saw she was in Williams’ quarter, then put the thought aside. She persevered through a nervous three-set first-round match against Italian qualifier Giulia Gatto-Monticone, then got an unexpected day off when Canada’s burgeoning talent Bianca Andreescu withdrew to spare her injured shoulder.
“I have so much respect for Serena. She’s done so much for tennis, for American tennis,” Kenin told me Friday after a hard-fought loss in the doubles draw. “I watched her so much growing up, along with [Maria] Sharapova and other players, of course. It’s just crazy, I would have never guessed that in a few years I’d be playing Serena Williams in the third round at Roland Garros. I would have been jumping off the couch back then.
“Hopefully I can handle my emotions well tomorrow. And try not to overthink it. It’s going to be a little bit strange, looking across the net and it’s Serena there, but I’m going to have to just lock in and take it as any other match, and just play.”
South Florida-based Kenin, who came to the United States from Russia with her parents as an infant, will have the mental crucible of Fed Cup team play to fall back on.
“It’s a different kind of pressure,” she said Friday. “You’re playing for your country, for your team, and you don’t want to let them down. It’s obviously really good to have this responsibility. It means they believe in you.”
Talk about daunting odds: This past November, with a young U.S. lineup fighting to defend the team’s Fed Cup title and down 0-2 in the best-of-five weekend against the Czech Republic in Prague, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi opted to start Kenin against Katerina Siniakova. Kenin had match points in the second set but succumbed after nearly four hours, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5. It was Kenin’s second three-set loss of the weekend.
At the postmatch news conference, seated next to Kenin, Rinaldi briefly broke down in tears. “Sonya — I’ve known her since she was 7 years old,” Rinaldi said then. “I couldn’t be more proud of what she’s done this week.”
She turned toward Kenin. “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your tennis all these years,” said Rinaldi, who also coached Kenin on the 2014 Junior Fed Cup team that won the championship.
A few weeks ago in San Antonio, Kenin took on another tense Fed Cup situation. Rinaldi selected her for the singles match that would clinch a U.S. berth in the 16-team World Group draw. (A loss to Australia in February forced the playoff against Switzerland.) Stephens tried to steady Kenin by telling her the team had her back, and would pick her up if needed in the next match. Still, when Kenin went down 0-3 in the second set to Timea Bacsinszky, déjà vu momentarily kicked in.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this cannot happen,'” Kenin told reporters afterward. “I do not want to lose. I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, so Kathy was like, ‘Go back to your game plan. Let’s do this and kick ass.'”
Kenin stormed back to force a tiebreak and took a 6-1 lead, only to feel her eyes fill with tears at the weight of the moment. Three points slipped away before she prevailed 6-3, 7-6 (4).
She started this season strong, winning a WTA hardcourt event in Hobart, Australia, and reaching the finals of the hardcourt Acapulco tournament, defeating Victoria Azarenka and Andreescu along the way.
“She’s having a really great year, obviously,” said Fed Cup teammate Madison Keys, who lost to Kenin in Rome in mid-May. “Being able to play through those nerves for the first time and finally get that win, I think, was really big for her.
“She was definitely one of the ones, when she was coming up in her [age] group, that everyone kind of knew that she was going to do things. I think [Saturday] she’s going to have a lot of fun, and I think she doesn’t really back down to pressure, and she really enjoys it and likes being able to play up.”
Williams, meanwhile, opened slowly in Paris and had to scramble back from a set down to win her first match against Vitalia Diatchenko, then dispatched Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara in more routine fashion — although nothing is coming particularly easy for her this season.
“I have had a tough year since I twisted my ankle in Australia,” said Williams, competing in only her fifth tournament of 2019. “Like, it’s just been really tough after that. So everything definitely feels a little bit harder than normal, but at the same time, I know that it’s going to get better.”
Williams had nothing but compliments for Kenin.
“I know her game really well,” Williams said. “She had a really great run in [Hobart], and I have been watching her.
“She has a lot to bring to the table. She’s so young, and she’s such a good player. I really — yeah, I’m actually looking forward to that match.”