Sofia Kenin falters at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia — Sofia Kenin knew this would be a tough test at the Australian Open, a potentially early end to her first attempt to defend a Grand Slam title.

Upon realizing she probably would be playing big-hitting veteran Kaia Kanepi in the second round, Kenin acknowledged, she “maybe kind of broke down a little bit.”

Kenin was right to be worried. And, with Kanepi at her best, this one was over quickly. Delivering 10 aces, Kanepi powered her way past the fourth-seeded Kenin, overwhelming the 2020 champion 6-3, 6-2 in only 64 minutes on Thursday.

“I obviously felt like I’m not there 100% – physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off, obviously. It’s not good,” Kenin said at her news conference, where she wiped away tears. “I mean, I just – I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure.”

Kanepi said her winning performance wasn’t merely a case of taking advantage of Kenin’s nerves because “I was nervous, too … playing the defending champion, that was the thought.”

Fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina beat 16-year-old Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-3, knocking the youngest player out of the women’s draw.

Gauff had a breakout major in Melbourne last year, reaching the round of 16 with wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka before losing to Kenin.

Svitolina was just too consistent when it counted, saving all four break points she faced and converting on two of the three shot got on Gauff’s serve.

Kanepi, 35, had beaten Kenin, 22, in their only previous matchup, part of why this was not a contest the American was looking forward to. Plus, Kanepi has been successful against some of the best on the biggest stages, with seven victories over Top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments, including against then-No. 1 Simona Halep at the 2018 U.S. Open.

And then there was recent form.

Kenin walked off the court crying after a 6-2, 6-2 loss last week in a tuneup event at the site of the Australian Open and explained afterward that her left leg was sore. Kanepi, meanwhile, put an end to No. 7-ranked Aryna Sabalenka’s 15-match winning streak last week and had won 16 of her past 17 outings.

With serves topping 175 kph (110 mph), Kanepi saved all seven break points she faced. And she wound up with a 22-10 edge in winners.

“I couldn’t find my rhythm,” Kenin said. “I was obviously way too nervous.”

Her departure meant three of the top nine seeded women already were gone before midway through Day 4 at a Grand Slam tournament where routines have been disrupted by the pandemic, joining No. 8 Bianca Andreescu (the 2019 U.S. Open champion) and No. 9 Petra Kvitova (a two-time Wimbledon winner) on the sidelines.

Top-ranked Ash Barty did manage to avoid a surprise Thursday, but she blew a big lead in the second set and survived a shaky tiebreaker to get past Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 7-6 (7).

Other women’s winners included former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, who beat Danielle Collins 7-5, 6-2, and Shelby Rogers, who reached the third round at the Australian Open for the first time by beating Olga Danilovic 6-2, 6-3.

Rogers, 28, reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open for the first time last September, and her year-end ranking was a career-best No. 58.

In an all-American match, No. 22 Jennifer Brady beat Madison Brengle 6-1, 6-2.

Barty, trying to become the first Australian to win the women’s title at Melbourne since Chris O’Neil in 1978, lost only 10 points in the opening round, and her match against Gavrilova was equally lopsided until the wobbly finish. She led 5-2 in the second set but was broken twice serving for the victory.

In the tiebreaker, Barty lost several ugly points. Gavrilova, a wild card, failed to convert two set points.

“When you play another Aussie, rankings go out the window, experience goes out the window,” Barty said. “Typically you know each other so well. It’s always going to be a tricky match.”

That was the case on the men’s side, when the first all-Italian men’s singles match at the Australian Open in the professional era was followed by a heated, protracted argument between Fabio Fognini and Salvatore Caruso.

Fognini rallied from a big deficit in the fifth to win 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (12) in almost four hours. An argument started at the net, seemed to fade as the players went back to their courtside chairs to pack up, but restarted twice. A tournament official eventually intervened to break them up.

“This kind of match, especially when you play against a guy from the same country, it’s tough,” the 16th-seeded Fognini said.

Fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas was pushed all the way by No. 267-ranked Australian wild-card entry Thanasi Kokkinakis in a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win that delayed the night program on Rod Laver Arena. Tsitsipas will next play Mikael Ymer, who beat 17-year-old Spanish qualifier Carlos Alcaraz in the second round.

Also advancing were No. 9 Matteo Berrettini, No. 21 Alex de Minaur and Mackenzie McDonald, who beat 22nd-seeded Borna Coric 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.

Feliciano Lopez, at 39 the oldest player in the men’s draw, edged No. 31 Lorenzo Sonego 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. Lopez is appearing at his 75th consecutive Grand Slam singles event, a men’s record.