Sofia Kenin, whose friends and family call her “Sonya,” is the latest Russian-American phenom to hit South Florida. The 15-year-old has hobnobbed with some of the biggest names in tennis since she was in kindergarten.
She toured the Crandon Park Tennis Center locker room with Kim Clijsters when she was 5, hit with Anna Kournikova at Moore Park in Miami at 7, and drew oohs and ahhs when as a tiny girl she hit with John McEnroe and Jim Courier during an exhibition match in Sunrise.
Back then, the hard-hitting kid with the piercing blue eyes was more of a novelty. Now, she is getting attention for her evolving game and success on the junior circuit.
On Wednesday, Kenin advanced to the third round of the 18-unders at the Metropolia Orange Bowl International with a 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 win over 18-year-old Florida State-bound Gabby Castaneda, who lives in Miramar and trains in Coral Gables.
Kenin got into the tournament as a wild card, and is proving she belongs. She used a combination of drop shots and slices to neutralize Castaneda’s power, and never flinched, even when she briefly lost her first-set lead at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation.
“I see that I can compete at this level,” Kenin said of her win. “My goal is to get to the Grand Slam junior tournaments.”
Kenin was born in Russia and moved to South Florida as an infant with her father Alec, who has coached her most of her life. She now trains at Pro World in Delray Beach with coach Antonio Torri.
Castaneda, whose parents are Cuban, had lost to Kenin over the summer, and knew she’d be in for a tough match.
“She’s got great hands,” Castaneda said. “Her drop shots were driving me crazy. I tried to make her run around, but she plays great defense.”
Castaneda also was granted a wild card because her club — Metropolia — happens to be the event sponsor. Although she was disappointed with the loss, she left feeling good about her game. Castaneda had not played the Orange Bowl for four years because she took a break from tennis to mentally regroup.
“I needed to evaluate what I wanted to do with tennis, and decided to go the college route,” she said. She heads to FSU next summer.
The other 15-year-old American who drew a big crowd Wednesday was Tornado Alicia Black of Boca Raton, the 2013 U.S. Open junior finalist.
Black had little trouble getting past Jacqueline Cabaj Awad of Sweden, 6-3, 6-2.
Black said she gained a lot of confidence playing at the U.S. Open. Her junior ranking jumped from No. 72 to No. 21 after that performance; she is now No. 10.
“It was really exciting practicing next to the pros and eating in the same cafeteria as them,” she said of the U.S. Open experience. She was particularly excited to see Roger Federer up close, and stunned when some fans recognized her in Times Square and asked for autographs.
Black isn’t the only tennis prodigy in her house. Her 12-year-old sister, Hurricane, recently reached the Eddie Herr tournament finals in her age bracket.
Black said she could use financial help to get to tournaments, so she signed up for involvedfan.com, a program in which fans can sponsor athletes in need.
Among the boys who advanced Wednesday were Stefan Kozlov of Pembroke Pines, top-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany, and No. 6 seeded American Michael Mmoh.