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Kenin of US ousts No. 1 Barty to reach Australian Open final

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Sofia Kenin never flinched.

Not when she was twice a point from dropping the opening set of her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open. Not when she was twice a point from dropping the second set, either.

And now the American is into her first major final at age 21 -- and she beat the woman ranked No. 1 to get there.

Kenin came back in each set to stop home hope Ash Barty's bid to give Australia a long-awaited singles champion at Melbourne Park and pull out a 7-6 (6), 7-5 victory on a stiflingly hot Thursday.

“This really wasn't an easy one,” said the 14th-seeded Kenin, who never had been past the fourth round at a major tournament until now.

This was not Barty's first foray onto this stage: She won the French Open last June, beating Kenin along the way.

But Barty was hardly at her best Thursday, especially at the most crucial moments, perhaps burdened by the task of trying to become the first Australian woman since 1980 to get to the final of the country's Grand Slam.

“Unfortunately, couldn't quite scrap enough to get over the line,” said Barty, who held her niece on her lap at the post-match news conference. “Just didn't play the biggest points well enough to win.”

Instead, Kenin is the first American other than a Williams sister to reach the Australian Open final since Lindsay Davenport in 1995. And Kenin is the first American woman to beat the No. 1 player at any major since Serena topped Venus at Wimbledon in 2002.

“She has the ability to adapt,” Barty said. “She's extremely confident at the moment, as well.”

Kenin, who was born in Russia and moved to Florida as a baby, burst onto the scene in 2019 by winning three singles titles, upsetting Serena Williams in the third round at Roland Garros, and soaring from No. 52 to No. 12 in the rankings.

She didn't face a seeded player in this tournament until Thursday, but did eliminate 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff in the fourth round.

On Saturday, Kenin will go up against either No. 4 Simona Halep or unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza. That pair of two-time major champions and former No. 1s faced each other in Thursday's second semifinal.

“I’m not even going to look,” Kenin said of Halep vs. Muguruza. “I’m just going to relax and enjoy this moment. I’m just looking forward to the final.”

In the men's semifinals, defending champion Novak Djokovic was scheduled to play Roger Federer for the 50th time on Thursday night, with No. 5 Dominic Thiem meeting No. 7 Alexander Zverev in a matchup between 20-somethings on Friday night.

Barty and Kenin stepped out in Rod Laver Arena in the early afternoon under a cloudless sky and a vibrant sun. The temperature topped 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in the first set, 20 to 25 (10 to 15) degrees hotter than it's been for much of a chillier-than-usual 1½ weeks so far at Melbourne Park.

“It was tough. I haven’t played in this heat for two weeks, (but) I expected it today,” Kenin said. “I’m from Miami. I’m used to this weather. The heat didn’t bother me.”

Barty braced herself by wearing an ice towel around her neck at changeovers.

In addition to making it uncomfortable for players and fans alike, the conditions caused balls to zip through the air and fly off rackets, rendering it that much harder to control shots. Add that to jitters and iffy footwork at times from both women, and neither was at her best for much of the opening set.

Barty's one-handed slice backhand was not as reliable as it normally is. Kenin's movement and groundstrokes seemed to lack their usual verve.

It took Kenin 43 minutes to register just one forehand winner, while 11 of her initial 14 points resulted from unforced errors by Barty.

Kenin loves to deliver drop shots, luring her opponent to the net, and follow them up with perfectly parabolic lobs, and she used that combination a few times. But otherwise, she and Barty both were making all sorts of mistakes.

After one lost point, Kenin hit herself in the thigh. On the next, she flubbed a high volley and dropped her racket to the ground. Up in the stands, Kenin's father, Alexander, who is also her coach, put his hands on his head.

Barty had nearly twice as many winners as Kenin in the first set, 22-12, thanks in large part to eight aces. She gathered more total points, too: 46-44. But that doesn't matter at all in tennis, of course.

Barty was a point from taking that set when she led 6-4 in the tiebreaker after slapping a 78 mph second serve for a forehand return winner, prompting Kenin to bounce her racket off the blue court and shake her head.

Maybe that helped release some tension, because Kenin wouldn't lose another point in the set.

Barty's first set point was wasted with a netted backhand, eliciting a collective "Awwwwww!" from the seats. The second was erased when Kenin ripped a good return, followed by a forehand that wrong-footed Barty. Another winner by Kenin, this one a swinging forehand volley, put her ahead 7-6 for her first set point. Barty then missed a runaround forehand.

Not ready to concede, Barty recovered quickly, earning the match's first break, 70 minutes in, en route to a 3-1 lead in the second set. That grew to 5-3, and she served for it at 5-4, but stumbled once more, getting broken there and again to end the semifinal.

By virtue of getting to the final, Kenin will climb into the top 10 in Monday's WTA rankings. One more win, and she'll achieve something even more significant: The right to call herself a Grand Slam champion.

“She deserves that respect,” Barty said, “and she deserves the recognition.”

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More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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