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Billie Jean King Cup team call-up is latest 'baby step' in Sofia Kenin's comeback

Victoria Chiesa | April 11, 2023


DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - The last time Sofia Kenin played Billie Jean King Cup, she was on top of the world. Three years later, the 2020 Australian Open champion is hoping that another call-up to captain Kathy Rinaldi's U.S. team is the next 'baby step' in a comeback.

 

Last week, Kenin was named to replace Madison Keys on the U.S. team for this weekend's Qualifier against Austria at the Delray Beach Tennis Center for her fifth career nomination for a Billie Jean King Cup tie. And a lot has changed not just for 2020 WTA Player of the Year Kenin, but also for women's tennis and the world at large, since she last donned the red, white, and blue in this storied competition.

 

Not the least of which? Its name: She last played this event when it went by its longtime prior name of Fed Cup. But, she said Tuesday after her first practice at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, she's happy to be here again, no matter the event's title. 

 

"Kathy called me, and [asked] me that if I wanted to be in Billie Jean King Cup, and I was like, 'Yes, of course. I love it,'" Kenin said. "I love being in a team. It's an honor. I'm just super excited to be here, and obviously, hoping that we get the win for the U.S. team."

Kenin's last appearance came in this same round in 2020 against Latvia, where she led the U.S. to a thrilling 3-2 win at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash. It was mere days after Kenin, then 21, won her first Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park, becoming the youngest American woman to win a major singles title since Serena Williams triumphed at Wimbledon in 2002. Later that year, and after tennis returned following the COVID-19 pandemic, she reached the final of Roland Garros, peaked at a career-high ranking of No. 4, and earned the WTA's top season-ending honor.  

 

Since then, Kenin has had more than her share of struggles. First, she needed an emergency appendectomy shortly after losing to the always-dangerous former Top 15 player Kaia Kanepi in the second round of her Melbourne title defense. A diagnosis of COVID-19 forced her to miss the US Open later that year. In 2022, she was sidelined from mid-March to early August with a foot injury, and saw her ranking drop as low as No. 416. 

Kenin practices Tuesday in Delray Beach. Photo by Manuela Davies/USTA.

But in the first three-plus months this year, Kenin has shown flashes of her best tennis, and here in Delray, she's says it's not worth reflecting on the past. Instead, she's coming full circle in what she's dubbing a "fresh start." 

 

"The last time I played [in 2020], I was flying from Australia and everyone expected me not to go, but of course, I was like, 'It's Fed Cup, I love coming,' so I definitely wanted to come," she said. "I love representing my country. I'm just very, very proud to be a part of the team."

 

Kenin comes into this tie ranked No. 132 in the WTA rankings, but she's shaved nearly 150 spots off her position since she was ranked No. 280 on Jan. 9. In Australia, Kenin reached the semifinals of the WTA 250 Hobart International, the first time she reached the penultimate round of a WTA event since finishing as runner-up to Iga Swiatek in Paris in her career-best year. In last month's 'Sunshine Double,' the sport's colloquial term for the consecutive, combined ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000 events in Indian Wells, Calif. and Miami, Kenin posted three wins, and lost two high-quality matches to other major-winners: reigning Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina in Round 2 of Indian Wells, and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu in the third round in Miami.

 

"I feel like I've been playing well this whole year," Kenin said. "Getting a call from Kathy shows that I'm right here with these girls. It gives me confidence. I feel like that it's definitely a good boost for me, and I'm grateful for it. I'm super happy that I'm capable of competing at this level because last year, I would not have been able to play as good, and now, I feel like I am. It's a positive step for me."

Photo by Manuela Davies/USTA.

The Qualifier is a best-of-five match series that begins Friday with two singles matches. Two reverse singles matches and a doubles match will follow on Saturday, with the possibility of a shortened slate of play should one team clinch victory, and a spot in November's Billie Jean King Cup Finals, in the third or fourth rubber. Whether or not Kenin steps on court this week for the U.S. team, which is led by current Top 10 players Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, and is heavily-favored against the visiting Austrian side led by world No. 78 Julia Grabher, remains to be seen. 

 

But the vibes around her are good, thanks in part to having the opportunity to again share the bench with Rinaldi, whom she's known since childhood, at a site that the Pembroke Pines, Fla. native has frequented often. She's also been working with a new coach for the last month-plus: longtime acquaintance Michael Joyce, former coach to Maria Sharapova and others, and most recently of USTA Player and Coach Development.

They've been working on her serve, being intentional about coming forward when the opportunity arises in matches, and "a couple of things I won't disclose," Kenin adds with a chuckle. "I feel, overall, it's really good. I'm happy."  

 

All of these factors together, Kenin hopes, will help get her back to where she wants to be. Until then, she's taking it one day at a time.

 

"I'd love to get back to the Top 100, baby steps, and then, of course, get up higher because I definitely feel like I can do it," Kenin said. "I feel like once I get in the Top 100, I feel like everything can speed up a bit, or give me even more confidence and I'll be even more hungry to even get back to the top."

 

The 2023 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier between the U.S. and Austria will air live on Tennis Channel on both Friday and Saturday. Play begins at 6 p.m. EDT Friday and 2 p.m. EDT on Saturday. For more from the tie, visit the USTA's Billie Jean King Cup homepage.

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