Sofia Kenin admits to struggling with pressure as Australian Open title defence ends in second round

An emotional Sofia Kenin says she “couldn’t really handle the pressure” of being defending Australian Open champion after making a second-round exit at Melbourne Park.

The fourth-seeded Kenin lost 6-3, 6-2 to Kaia Kanepi in just over an hour on Margaret Court Arena on Thursday afternoon.

She was outplayed by the unseeded Estonian, who slammed down 10 aces — including one on match point — to advance to the last 32 in her 12th Australian Open appearance.

Kenin is the highest seed across both the women’s and men’s draw to be eliminated from this year’s tournament.

Her loss also marks the earliest departure of a defending women’s champion since Jennifer Capriati exited the 2003 tournament in the first round.

Kenin could not hold back tears when she addressed her post-match media conference less than an hour after her loss to Kanepi.

She said she felt too much expectation playing in the Australian Open as the reigning champion.

“Obviously I haven’t experienced that [before],” she said.

“I obviously felt like I’m not there 100 per cent physically, mentally … everything just feels real off, obviously. It’s not good.

“Because like today and those matches, it just hasn’t been there.”

Kenin ‘way too nervous’

Kenin said she struggled to play her natural game and “her head wasn’t there”.

But the 22-year-old acknowledged Kanepi deserved her win.

“She obviously played well,” Kenin said.

“I obviously felt like I couldn’t find my rhythm, I was obviously way too nervous.

“She played really well. She came up with some good shots. She obviously had a good plan against me. I just couldn’t execute my shots.”

A cap-wearing tennis player holds a big trophy after winning her first Grand Slam title.A cap-wearing tennis player holds a big trophy after winning her first Grand Slam title.
Kenin was not considered one of the favourites when she won the Australian Open last year.(AP: Lee Jin-man)

Kenin was the 14th seed when she stormed to her first major title just over 12 months ago at Melbourne Park.

She stunned world number one and local favourite Ash Barty in the semi-finals, before defeating two-time major winner Garbiñe Muguruza in the tournament decider.

Like every player on the WTA Tour, Kenin’s 2020 season was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but she did reach the French Open final and achieved a career-high ranking of four in the world.

Kenin said it was easier to slip under the radar at last year’s Australian Open because she was not considered among the favourites to win the title.

“I just came here, I didn’t have really any expectations,” she said.

“I obviously wanted to do well. I knew I was playing well. I started having a good run and everything. It’s not like I was ranked 100 and all of a sudden, I won. I was … top 20 or something. I don’t even remember.

“I just didn’t put this much pressure on myself as this year. This year I put a lot of pressure [on myself]. I obviously felt like I was expected to do well.”