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Sofia Kenin: Tennis’ Tom Brady
Feb 6, 2020, 6:58:00 AM

Sofia Kenin: Tennis’ Tom Brady

According to a tennis coach, she and Brady have a similar thing that only champions possess: an uncanny mental toughness to see things through.

Rick Macci is an 82-year-old tennis coach with plenty of champions on his resume. Just recently, a new champion was included on it: 21-year-old Sofia Kenin of the United States who won the Australian Open. Her triumph at Melbourne may be a surprise to some but not to Macci, who coached the player from when she was five to twelve years old. ‘This isn’t a one-hit wonder’, said Macci in an interview. ‘She’s not going anywhere’. You have to first see things from his perspective to understand: people call him nearly all the time claiming that they have the next Serena, Maria, or Andy. ‘You take it with a grain of salt’.

However, early in her training, Macci saw something different in Kenin. He even called her ‘Sonic Boom’. Kenin was undersized back then and still is now - she’s only 5-foot-7 at 125 pounds, a lot smaller than most of her competition. She also isn’t the heaviest hitter. But what she did have was the uncanny ability to place the ball exactly where she wanted - which she displayed during the Australian Open for all to see. ‘She understands the geometry of the court like a wizard’, said Macci. ‘Her angles are from outer space’.

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Despite her skill, this wasn’t what impressed Macci. What impressed him, though, was about Kenin when she was younger. Her real gift wasn’t her tennis sense - it was her distinctive mental toughness. ‘Usually, the mental part is what you get last’, he said. ‘She had it first. It was uncanny’. According to the coach, Kenin’s early game resembled Martina Hingis’ style. Mentally, though, she was like Jimmy Connors. When the young Kenin would lose a match, she’d pester Macci to arrange a rematch. ‘Her drive and determination have always been about the competition’, said Macci. ‘She just loved to compete against anybody, anywhere’.

Unlike many father-child relationships in tennis which are usually filled with spite, Sofia and her father, Alex’s, is different. ‘Alex deserves so much credit’, said Macci. Alex also serves as his daughter’s coach. In Australia, the No. 14-seeded Kenin eliminated opponents including Coco Gauff, World No. 1 and local favourite Ash Barty, and finally Garbiñe Muguruza to win her first title. Macci woke up at 3 am local time to watch Kenin’s match. ‘I expected her to win, she expected herself to win, and Alex expected her to win’, said Kenin. ‘That’s big difference from hope’.

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It was as if Kenin predicted the whole thing. The last time Kenin and Macci saw each other, he asked his former student what the game plan was. ‘She just looked at me and said: “To be No. 1 in the world”’. Winning the Australian Open lifts Kenin to No. 7, making her the world’s top-ranked American. She now joins a new generation of great young players who’ve won major tournaments, like the 22-year-old Naomi Osaka and 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu. For Kenin, it’s a big breakthrough she’s been waiting for. She’s been repeatedly overlooked because she lacked the flare that other players possess. Her former coach compared her to Tom Brady, a sixth-round choice who went on to win six Super Bowl titles. He wasn’t the fastest or strongest player but he would reach the top of his sport.

‘There are many different ways to get to the mountaintop’, said Macci.

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Words: Carlos Corpus

Image: PA