Sofia Kenin leading the way for the U.S. women on the WTA Tour

Self-assurance is a quality that 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin has seemingly had from birth. STR / AFP

In 2006, when Sofia Kenin was still an undersized 7-year-old, the host of a popular local tennis program asked her on camera if she would like to play Andy Roddick. After she said "yes," he asked if she thought she could return the famous Roddick serve. When she again said "yes," he asked, "How?"

Kenin thought about it for a moment, a grave expression on her tiny face, then said: "If I split [step], prepare early and do a short backswing."

Maybe Kenin was coached beforehand, maybe not. But plenty of other witnesses can attest that Kenin's talent and preternatural grasp of how to play the game were manifest at an astonishingly early age. The skill and confidence continued to develop along with physique and game. Now 20 years old, Kenin has become, arguably, the most successful U.S. woman on the WTA Tour thus far in 2019. She's won three titles, more than any of her compatriots, and bolted from outside the Top 50 in January to a current live ranking of No. 15.

"It's really great, winning some tournaments and leading the American group," Kenin told ESPN.com during a phone call from Wuhan, China on Thursday, not long after she won the title in Guangzhou. "It gives me a boost and a ton of confidence."

Self-assurance is a quality the poised, plain-speaking young woman has seemingly had from birth. Born in Moscow, Russia, to parents who knew nothing about tennis and came to the U.S. with less than $300 to their name, Kenin discovered the game after the family settled in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Even as a tot, Kenin had no use for dolls and toys. She tried dance and soccer. Then, at around age 4, she discovered tennis and it was game over. Or, more accurately, game on.

Tennis has had numerous prodigies, young players whose reputations preceded them as they emerged from the junior ranks. Kenin wasn't really one of them, despite moments like the Roddick interview and the proselytizing done on her behalf by the coach who helped develop her game, Rick Macci.

Macci -- who runs a tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida, and has left fingerprints on the games of, among others, Jennifer Capriati, Roddick and Serena and Venus Williams -- began coaching Kenin when she was about 5 and shaped her game until age 12 (with help from Kenin's primary coach, her father, Alexander).

Macci was bowled over from the start.

"I saw it right away," Macci said. "Sofia had that something you can't teach. She wanted to win, and she knew how to compete and win. It was all baked in there already, all of it."

Macci was so impressed with Kenin's abilities that he frequently took his tiny protege to exhibitions, conferences and seminars for teaching pros, where he would trot her out to hit -- or arrange for her to hit -- with celebrity pros like Kenin's Russian compatriot Anna Kournikova. Due to her diminutive size, Kenin wasn't always an easy sell.

"It was always the same," Macci said. "They would say, 'Yeah, she's good, but she's so small. ... The forehand this, the backhand that. But I would just tell them that if you really want to see what's so special, you have to lift the hood. That engine in there, there's just nothing else like it."

Macci was referring to the combination of unquantifiable qualities that go into the making of a great player. In Kenin's case, it was her grit, determination and self-confidence, married. Those blended seamlessly with a remarkable work ethic (at 7, she was already practicing three hours a day) and a skill set that includes a lethal drop shot (touted by Macci as "already the best in the WTA") and a facility for taking the ball on the rise. Of that, she said: "That came naturally. I was never the biggest, so I had to take the ball early and control the points in order to not be overpowered."

Macci honed that gift for taking charge by matching Kenin with older girls (or boys), a challenge the youngster relished.

"I didn't mind if she got crunched, got squished," he said, "because I could see what was coming. Even at 6 she was playing people older. She would play anybody, anytime, anywhere. She loved to compete."

"I'm fierce," Kenin said. "I'm very determined, and always had that in me. I didn't have to train myself to be the way I am."

Kenin moved on to the pro tour in a fairly swift and orderly manner, punching through to become a regular on the main tour in 2018. She began 2019 ranked just outside the top 50, but kicked off the year by winning her first tour-level title, in January at Hobart, New Zealand. She added a grass-court title to her resume in Mallorca in June. After her win in Guangzhou, she joined 19-year-old US Open champion Bianca Andreescu as the only two 20-or-under players in the WTA top 20.

At 5-foot-7, Kenin is still one of the smaller players on the tour. But she hasn't felt like an underdog, not even on the eve of the win that would make her a much larger blip on the radar -- Kenin's third-round upset of one of her idols, Serena Williams, at the French Open.

"I had watched her do so many great things," Kenin said. "There's a reason why she's Serena. But I knew if I focused on the name I wouldn't have much chance. So I cleared my mind, put aside my respect and was able to treat it like a regular match."

Kenin managed the challenge so well that she won 6-2, 7-5. Williams acknowledged Kenin's talent afterward, saying, "In that first set in particular, she hit pretty much inches from the line. I haven't played anyone like that in a long time."

Left unsaid was the signature composure Kenin showed even when Williams mounted a spirited fightback in the second set. Kenin made the task of quelling a Williams revival even tougher when the French crowd, growing tired of Kenin questioning line calls, turned on her. She remained unfazed through all the boos and catcalls, later telling reporters: "I didn't really care. I knew I just had to show the crowd, like, 'Listen, Sonya Kenin is in the house.'"

That bit of braggadocio was somewhat unexpected, but Kenin has never practiced false humility. She has that well-hidden, but very real, streak of arrogance sometimes found in the highly gifted. Some find her arrogant in the same way as that other fearless bantamweight who had loads of confidence and an innate feel for the game, Martina Hingis.

Kenin, like Hingis, has a knack for playing her best against the best players. Her record against top-10 opponents in 2019 is an excellent 5-8. She's 4-4 since her breakout win over Williams. She's beaten two former or current No. 1s, Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka. She seems to revel in the challenge of player stronger, taller players, including the most feared power servers on the tour.

"I think my game [style] suits well to playing bigger players," she said. "I don't feel like I'm ever getting overpowered. Serena, Karolina [Pliskova], of course those serves are tough. But I think my game is perfect with them. I feel really comfortable."

Kenin isn't just about big wins, though. Her consistency has been impressive. She's lost in the first round just four times this entire year (24 tournaments) and reached the third round or better 10 times, including at the French and U.S. Opens.

Broach the subject of bad losses with Kenin, and she doesn't dwell on matches like her first-round fail in Strasbourg against No. 223 wild card Chloe Paquet. She brings up the missed opportunity against former No. 1 Simona Halep in the second round of the Australian Open (Kenin lost 6-4 in the third) or second-ranked Pliskova's three-set win in the quarterfinals at Zhengzhou. That's the company she wants to keep.

Kenin has played a heavy schedule this year, yielding a 46-20 singles record. But she's pushing on, already looking ahead to 2020. "I'm a little bit tired, but I don't want to stop," she said. "I want to keep going forward, finish the year strong, get ready for next year."

Kenin isn't as cagey or measured about her ambitions as are some of her peers. She doesn't give you any of this, "I just want to be as good as I can be" baloney. She will tell you, repeatedly, that she wants to be No. 1 and to win Grand Slam titles.

"I see the same things now that I saw at 6," Macci said. "But now I see them in a young lady. She wants to be No. 1 in the world. She expects to be No. 1 in the world. She doesn't hope it, she doesn't dream it, she expects it. And that right there is a big difference."