On Saturday 10 October 2020, Sofia Kenin lost to Iga Swiatek in the final of the 2020 French Open. Despite the defeat, Kenin made an impressive run in the competition which saw her defeat two times Grand Slam Champion Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals. The 21-year-old tennis ace made her grand entry to the tennis scene in early 2020 when she defeated Garbine Muguruza at the Australian Open to capture her maiden Grand Slam. In winning the Australian Open, she became the youngest American to win a Grand Slam title since Serena Williams won the 1999 US Open. She is currently the top-seeded American female tennis player.
Despite her success on the court, she hasn’t got the recognition and acceptance that she genuinely deserves. Generally, America relishes in celebrating its champions; however, it is reluctant to celebrate Kenin. America’s media underreport her accomplishment, and celebrities and sponsors have ignored her.
Why is this the case? Although Kenin is American and has represented the USA in the Billie Jean Cup (formerly Fed Cup) and Youth Olympic, she is of Russian heritage. She was born in Moscow, and her parents are both Russians. Her father Alex Kenin, who is also Kenin’s coach played a key role in nurturing his daughter to become a tennis champion. Just like how the Williams Sister are viewed from the prism of their outspoken father, Richard Williams, Kenin is being seen through the prism of her outspoken father, Alex Kenin. Her father upset many in the aftermath of his daughter defeating Coco Gauff at the 2020 Australian Open when he said, “I think hype should equal accomplishments, and that would be fair… It’s regarding to my daughter comparing the amount of coverage she has, and she has accomplished much more.”
With Russia and America engaged in a second Cold War, it should come as no surprise that Kenin’s success is overlooked. Russophobia is at elevated levels in America and other western countries .
America, which prides itself in being the land of opportunity and a melting pot of different nationalities, has a long history of treating some of its citizens as outsiders. Kenin is not the first tennis personality to get the cold shoulder from America and the west due to her heritage. The Williams Sisters who have carried the banner of American Tennis for over two decades have been treated as the ultimate outsiders. In a recent interview with British Vogue, Serena Williams said she felt underpaid and undervalued as a black tennis player. Richard Williams and Oracene Price, the parents of Serena and Venus, continue to be denied recognition by the American dominated International Tennis Hall of Fame.
While Kenin has not experienced the vicious racism inflicted upon the Williams Sisters, there is a case to be made that she might be facing the cold-shouldered xenophobia experienced by tennis players like Novak Djokovic and Ivan Lendl. Coincidentally, Kenin, Lendl and Djokovic all originate from former Soviet bloc countries. In the 1980s, Ivan Lendl, a retired Czech-American professional tennis player, was the dominant force in men’s tennis. He won 8 Grand Slam titles and was the top seed for 270 weeks. While the media heaped accolades on his western rivals such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, it downplayed Lendl’s accomplishments. His failure to win a Wimbledon title continues to haunt his great legacy. Several commentators even described him as the “Ivan the Terrible” of the tennis courts.
Novak Djokovic, the Serbian, is currently the best tennis player in the world and despite dominating his two greatest rivals, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, he is yet to earn respect from the tennis world. At the 2018 Wimbledon Final against Roger Federer, the usually “civil” spectators turned against Djokovic jeering him and applauding his double faults. Nadal and Federer’s medical timeouts are rarely questioned, a luxury that Djokovic does not enjoy.
With the Williams Sisters in the twilight of their tennis careers, America yearns for a tennis champion in the men and female games. Paradoxically, though Kenin’s emergence has addressed this yearning, she is yet to be embraced. Other American players who have achieved limited successes are getting the spotlight. We see celebrities, sponsors and the media celebrate American players just for defeating either Serena or Venus Williams in a Grand Slam tournament. It is a cruel jest to see a hard-working American ignored because of her heritage and because she does not meet the so-called American definition of marketability. If America claims to be a so-called meritocratic society, why is it falling prey to the anthropology of low expectations?
Some may use America’s acceptance of Coco Gauff and Maria Sharapova’s to nullify my argument. Still, my dissenters should realise that racism and xenophobia are fluid. These Gauff and Sharapova’s acceptance are exceptions which prove the rule, just like how having a black American president does not negate the fact that racism was and is still endemic in America.
America should shake off its xenophobia and the legacy of the Cold War and embrace and celebrate Kenin irrespective of her heritage. If Kenin maintains her current trajectory, then the future of American tennis is in good hands.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA