Australian Open 2021: Defending champion Sofia Kenin battles through, Azarenka bows out


Sure, Sofia Kenin struggled in her first match as a defending champion at a Grand Slam tournament. The 22-year-old from Florida struggled with jitters at the Australian Open. Struggled with her shots. Struggled against an opponent who’s never won a tour-level match. 

Kenin, though, knows all that really matters: Who can claim the final point. And, eventually, she managed to do just that Tuesday at Melbourne Park, setting aside an early deficit and beating 133rd-ranked Australian wild-card entry Maddison Inglis 7-5, 6-4. 

“I’m obviously not too happy with the way I played,” Kenin said with a chuckle, “but a win is a win.” 

Former Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka bowed out to unseeded Jessica Pegula, losing 7-5, 6-4 after being up 5-2 in the opening set. Azarenka struggled late in the second set, needed a trainer and doctor as she appared to struggle to catch her breath. 

Inglis is still searching for one: She fell to 0-6 for her career. Still, boosted by a crowd of locals at Rod Laver Arena, she did not make things easy on Kenin, who nevertheless managed to avoid becoming the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2003 to lose in the first round at the Australian Open a year after winning the championship. 

“First round, it’s obviously nerves for me,” said Kenin, who followed up her first major title last year by reaching the final at the French Open. 

The woman Kenin defeated for the title in last year’s final in Melbourne, two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza, also advanced to the second round, defeating Margarita Gasparyan of Russia 6-4, 6-0. 

Muguruza dropped only 11 points in the second set and improved to 9-0 in first-round matches at the Australian Open. 

In other early results on Day 2 on a sunny day with the temperature in the low 70s Fahrenheit (low 20s Celsius), 17-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest man to win a Grand Slam match since Thanasi Kokkinakis was one day younger at the 2014 Australian Open

Alcaraz eliminated Botic Van de Zandschulp, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands who is ranked 151st, by a score of 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. A seeded woman exited the tournament when Ann Li, a 20-year-old American, defeat No. 31 Zhang Shuai 6-2, 6-0 in just 47 minutes to improve to 5-0 this season. 

Li is ranked 69th and competing in only her third career Grand Slam tournament. She is coming off an unusual accomplishment at a tune-up tournament at Melbourne Park last week: Li shared the title of the Grampians Trophy with Anett Kontaveit because organizers decided not to hold a final so as not to wear out the players right before the Australian Open. 

That warmup event was created for players such as Li who had to go into a hard lockdown after potentially being exposed to COVID-19. They were not allowed out of their hotel rooms for practice — or any other reason — during a two-week quarantine upon arrival in Australia. 

For Kenin, her issues in the early going Tuesday resulted in an early break that led to her falling behind 3-1. Even after she got that back, how close was the opening set? They players split the first 52 total points, each grabbing 26. 

They split the first 10 total winners, each producing five. But Kenin came through at crunch time. 

In the second set, she went up an early break before finding herself even at 3-all, 30-all. A net-cord backhand gave Kenin a break point — she offered the usual ‘Sorry, not sorry, raised hand’ — that was converted when Inglis pushed a groundstroke long. 

There was one more tight moment. Serving for the victory at 5-4, Kenin faced a break point that she erased with a service winner at 88 mph (142 kph). Moments later, her first match point arrived and she double-faulted it away. 

She pushed a forehand wide on her second chance to close things. But on chance No. 3, a swinging backhand volley winner converted.



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