After reaching the women's 2020 French Open semi-finals on Wednesday, Sofia Kenin was asked if there was a word that sums up what she loves so much about tennis.
The 21-year-old American did not hesitate.
"Definitely win," she said. "That's my answer."
Kenin has never hidden her desire to win titles or become the best in the world, but hearing that it was so succinct proved her mentality of winning at all costs. She supported this on Thursday in Paris with a 6: 4: 7: 5 win against two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in order to reach her second major career final.
"She deserved to definitely win today," said Kvitova, who had not lost a set during the entire tournament. "She was just better."
After Kenin won the Australian Open in February, she now has the chance to win her second Grand Slam and move up to 3rd place in the ranking. She hopes to be the first woman since Angelique Kerber in 2016, who hoisted two major trophies in the same year, and only the third American to ever make her first two slam finals in the same season. Both performances are even more impressive as there were only three options in 2020 as Wimbledon was canceled. Kenin will face 19-year-old Iga Swiatek in the women's championship game on Saturday.
Kenin made it clear that in the final she expects the same tenacity and fiery behavior on the pitch for which she is known.
"I really hate to lose and I love to win," she said on Thursday. "I try everything to win."
This ride was visible throughout the fortnight. Kenin screamed and screamed – she said, "Come on!" fails – and threw her bat. She has received multiple fines and warnings for getting help from her trainer (her father) Alex. He, too, has shown his willingness to help in any way he can – even during his fourth round game he clumsily switched places to sit next to his opponent's coach in an obvious intimidation tactic. Kenin had to decide in all but two games and needed every additional advantage she could find on the way to the final.
Sofia Kenin has a 16-1 mark in the Grand Slam in the matchup against Polish teenager Iga Swiatek this season. Julian Finney / Getty Images
To say 2020 was a breakthrough for Kenin would be an understatement. She started the year after never finishing fourth round in a major. She then rolled through the Melbourne draw – including a win over home favorite and world number 1 Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals and two-time main champion Garbine Muguruza in the final. She was the youngest American to win an individual Grand Slam title since Serena Williams in 1999, and she surpassed Williams as the highest ranking compatriot by winning in seventh place. She clinched her second title of the year in Lyon, France March 8, just hours before Indian Wells was canceled. The next day she rose to number 4 in the rankings, but could not play for months as the season was interrupted indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like many of her colleagues, Kenin struggled with the sudden stalling of her Globetrotter schedule and uncertainty about when the competition would resume. She was disappointed not having the chance to enjoy all of the perks that come with winning a major title and playing the best tennis of her career. She returned to her home in Florida and found it difficult at first to find the will to continue training, as she had no idea when she would play again.
Her father never let her lose sight of her goals and what she wanted to achieve. He wanted her to be ready whenever the competition resumed.
"I'm always with my dad and he's my coach and he kept telling me, 'You have to stay motivated, try to stay motivated," she told ESPN.com in July. "He's really helped me with that . When I found out about (an exhibition tournament in) Charleston, I was very excited and motivated. I just wanted to compete again. "
She played at the team event in Charleston, South Carolina in June, then moved on to her first season of World Team Tennis, which took place in a bubble in West Virginia for three weeks in July. If there was an opportunity to play a competitive game – anytime or anywhere – she would take it. And she kept the ability to play at both the US Open and the French Open always at the center of her mind – drawing inspiration from the two majors for every tough training session.
Iga Swiatek has won all 12 sets she played at the French Open and only lost 23 games. Getty Images
"I am thinking that both will happen," she said in an interview about the summer. "I know they might not, but I can't think like that. I have to have goals."
Despite her high expectations, Kenin lacked her signature intensity at the "Double in the Bubble" events in New York when the season resumed. She lost her opener against Alize Cornet in straight sets at the Western & Southern Open and then lost in the fourth round to Elise Mertens at the US Open. Her start to the clay court season was even worse – she was double bagged in the first round in Rome by Victoria Azarenka.
After what she described as the "disaster" of a game at the Italian Open, she was able to arrive in Paris earlier than expected and get used to the autumn conditions and the dishes of Roland Garros as best she could. The strategy worked.
"It took me some time to get motivated again," she said on Thursday after her semi-final victory. "I finally got it. I have the feeling that I'm playing the best tennis right now.
"I played really well in Australia. Now I feel like I'm playing as well or even better."
Kenin enters the final of the French Open Women in the unusual position as an older and more experienced player and the associated pressure. She and Swiatek have never played against each other at the WTA level, but they know each other's games – Swiatek defeated Kenin in the third round of the junior tournament at Roland Garros in 2016.
Swiatek is number 54 in the world and has played the best tennis of her career at Roland Garros. In the fourth round, she beat number 1 and 2018 champion Simona Halep 6: 2, 6: 1 in a little over an hour. Nobody has played more than five combined games against her during her dominant run in Paris. Kenin, who briefly sat with her father at the Philippe Chatrier farm and watched Swiatek warm up on Thursday, has not forgotten their previous meeting.
"I remember losing," said Kenin. "I don't remember how I played but I can definitely say that I didn't feel as comfortable on clay as I did now as I felt last year.
"I have to find out what she's doing. She's had two great weeks here. She's got some great results and played really good tennis. I know I play well too. I'm just going to enjoy myself today." and then I'll prepare for Saturday tomorrow. "
If Kenin isn't worried, it's because she's prepared for this moment. After picking up a racket for the first time at the age of 5 shortly after the family moved from Russia to the United States, she immediately showed promising performance in sport. She has traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers and played countless games since those early days, but her words in a video interview from the age of seven may be even truer today.
"I want to be a champion and I want to be number 1 in the world."
On Saturday she has a chance to get one step closer to her childhood goal and one thing is certain: she will do everything possible to achieve it.